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Islam's First Great General
By Richard A. Gabriel
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2007 Richard A. Gabriel
All rights reserved.
The Land of Arabia
The Arabs call their land Jazirat al-Arab, the "island of the Arabs," and it is indeed an island surrounded by water on three sides and by sand on the fourth. The land is harsh, and until modern times when armies could take advantage of motorized transport, history knew of no invader who had succeeded in penetrating the country's sandy barriers to establish a permanent presence in the land. Arabia comprises the Arabian Peninsula and its northern extension, the Syrian Desert, a vast landmass that encompasses almost 1.5 million square miles, an area slightly larger than all of western Europe including Scandinavia. The ground itself is made up of a single uniform block of ancient rock called the Arabian Shield and consists mostly of desert and steppe. The climate is uniformly hot, dry, and harsh, except for Yemen, which is blessed by monsoon rains and is fertile. The rest of the country is almost completely barren, receiving on average only six inches of rain per year.
Arabia is divided into four geographic regions. One is Al Hijaz (Hejaz), consisting of the western highlands that parallel the coast of the Red Sea. The mountains themselves reach as high as four thousand feet and separate the narrow coastal plain from the steppe land of the interior. A number of valley passes make it possible to travel from the interior to the coastal strip with only little difficulty. But the passes are few and of some distance between, making the mountains a formidable obstacle to military passage. Running sometimes along the coast and sometimes on the interior side of the mountains is the famous Arabian spice road, the route connecting the ports at the southern tip of the peninsula with the road to the north and the former Byzantine border provinces, including Palestine and Egypt. Ships from India and Africa unloaded their cargoes in these ports, where they were transferred to camel caravan trains and carried northward to Mecca, the commercial center located halfway between the ports and the markets farther north. This road was the commercial lifeline of Mecca and the entire westernmost area of the country.
The second geographic zone is the interior, largely stony, sandy wastes and desert. The Rub' al-Khali, or Empty Quarter, is a vast desert in the south that has large sand dunes sometimes reaching more than a hundred feet high and running on for miles at a stretch. In the center of Arabia are the Nafud and Dahna Deserts, which constitute formidable barriers to west–east travel. In the north lies the great Syrian Desert and the smaller wastes of Hisma and Hamad. The routes used by the Meccan caravan trains skirted these desolate areas; it was impossible for man or beast to attempt a crossing and survive. The third zone lies far to the east and comprises the hot and humid coastal lands of the Persian Gulf where agriculture is possible due to abundant groundwater.
Far to the south is Yemen, the fourth zone, the famous land of antiquity from which the prized aromatic plants that produced frankincense and myrrh were found. Yemen is a land of towering mountains, fertile valleys, and coastal plains. The monsoon rains make the ground fertile and well suited to agriculture. The people of Yemen were mostly settled rather than nomadic and were skilled in the building of dams and irrigation systems that made large-scale agriculture feasible. One of these dams, at Marib, was said to have made possible the cultivation of more than twenty thousand square acres of land. So large was the population supported by these lands that when the dam broke sometime near the beginning of the second century C.E., a great number of people were forced to migrate to the north.
There are no permanent rivers anywhere in Arabia, and rainfall is sparse and limited to certain times of the year. In the south the rains come in the spring and summer; in the north winter and spring are the rainy seasons. The rains can be heavy at times and are often accompanied by gale-force winds that can turn the wadi beds into raging torrents that wreak havoc on the mud-brick houses and walled gardens. Driving rains have been known to turn mud-brick walls into mud, sweeping away the liquid mass in a localized flood.
During Muhammad's time five-sixths of the population of Arabia was bedouin and permanent settlements were few. Ptolemy, writing in his Geography sometime around 150 C.E., listed only 218 settlements in Arabia, of which more than 150 were small villages. Only six "cities" were listed, and all of these were in Yemen where the land was sufficiently fertile to sustain large populations. Most of these "cities" were relatively small in both area and population, and only two were surrounded by walls of mud-brick and stone. The length of the walls permit a rough estimate of the size of the populations. The walls of Qarnaw were 1,150 meters in length, and those of Timna were 1,850 meters long. Walls of this size can enclose, on average, about eight to nine acres of land. Using Yigael Yadin's estimate of approximately 240 persons per urban acre as the average population density for cities of the Middle East in antiquity, one might reasonably guess that the size of these cities was around two thousand souls. The language of Arabia itself reflects the lack of urbanization in the land, for there is no word for city in classical Arabic. The most commonly used term in this context is hagar, a word that connotes the fortified assembly place or compound of a tribe where its clans are brought together for war or other purposes.
Muhammad spent most of his life in the Hejaz. With the exception of the mountains, the land of the Hejaz consists of desert and steppe. The steppe (darah) forms itself into vast circular plains lying between hills covered with sand. Large tracts of the steppeland are covered by fissured fields of hardened lava overlying sandstone. These lava fields are important barriers to military and commercial movement since neither horse nor camel can negotiate them without great risk of the animal's falling and breaking its limbs or falling on its rider. There are few trees, and only the acacia and the tamarisk seem to thrive. The Hejaz is a rocky and harsh place given to drought, with the land often going without rain for three years at a time. Deeply dug wells and cisterns are the main means of water supply. Cisterns are cavelike holes dug in the ground, the walls of which are sealed with stucco and into which water is diverted or caught from rainstorms. The cistern is then sealed until its contents are needed. It is an old ayuin custom to construct cisterns along a planned route of march so that the clan can be supplied with water as it moves over the desert. It was not unusual for bedouin raiders to construct and fill a cistern in some desolate location from which they could undertake raids against caravans. Without a source of water themselves, the caravan guards were unable to pursue the raiders.
In a few places groundwater seeps to the surface forming a fetid, swamplike area called an oasis. Most of the oases in the Hejaz are located north of Medina, itself the largest oasis in the region. The second-largest oasis in the Hejaz is only ten square miles in area. Although malaria is endemic, the oases are valuable for their water supply and their ability to sustain substantial agriculture. Agriculture was probably introduced to the area sometime around the first century C.E., most probably by the Jewish tribes. The origins of the Jewish tribes in the Hejaz are obscure. One possibility is that the Jews that settled there were refugees from Roman suppression of the Bar Kokhba Revolt in Israel in the early 130s C.E. or from the prior Jewish War. Another is that the Jews migrated from Yemen after the destruction of the great dam at Marib about a hundred years later. By Muhammad's time the Jewish tribes of the area were indistinguishable from the Arab tribes in structure, ethos, and behavior. Only their religious observance distinguished them from other Arab clans.
Barley and millet were the major grain crops grown in the oases and were used to make small breadlike cakes for human consumption. Among the animals only horses were sometimes fed on grain as a supplement to their grazing. Grapes were introduced sometime during the fourth century C.E.; the olive tree was unknown. The Jews and Nabataeans were likely responsible for the importation of fruit trees to the area, and apples, oranges, lemons, watermelons, pomegranates, and bananas were cultivated. The most important of all Arabian crops was the date palm. It is likely that the date palm was introduced from Mesopotamia during very ancient times. The fruit of the date palm (tamr), together with the milk of camels and goats, is the chief food of the bedouin. The date is often mixed with flour or roasted barley or millet and washed down with milk or water. It is the wish of every bedouin to have "the two black ones," that is, plenty of dates to eat and water or camel milk to drink. Except for the flesh of a camel slaughtered for food when its useful life was at an end, the date fruit was the bedouin's only solid food. Muhammad took note of the importance of the date to the Arab way of life when he said, "Honor your aunt, the palm, which is made of the same clay as Adam."
In the harsh land of the Hejaz only the bedouin was truly at home. Those who lived in the oases or the few towns often had to hire bedouin guides to travel from one place to another or hire them as personal and caravan guards to ensure a safe journey. The heat, trackless roads, lack of food, scarcity of water, and the general discomfort of life in the desert, while problematic during times of peace, became the allies of the bedouin in times of war. His daily ration of dates and water would bring any other army to its knees in a few days; but the bedouin could subsist on this diet forever. Living on dates, water, and the very camels that carried them, Arab armies were far more mobile than those of their adversaries. During the first battles of the Arab conquests Arab armies chose battlefields that were close to the desert so that in the event of a defeat they could retreat into the desert where the enemy could not follow. Perhaps it was this capability that King Faisal of Saudi Arabia had in mind when he responded to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's threat that the U.S. Army might be forced to seize the Saudi oil fields if the Saudis did not bring down the price of OPEC oil to ease the energy crisis of 1973. Confronted with Kissinger's threat, Faisal is said to have smiled and replied, "We are Arabs. We will return to the desert and live on camel milk and dates ... and fight you from there forever."
The Arabs of Muhammad's day wore clothing that was well suited to the harsh Arabian environment. Men wore a long shirt called a thawb tied with a belt around the waist. A long flowing robelike garment that reached almost to the ground called an 'aba was worn over the thawb. The head was covered with a kind of shawl called a kufiyah held in place with a cord or iqal. Trousers were not usually worn, and most people went barefoot, although the later use of stirrups may have required sandals or some other form of footwear when riding. Arab clothing made an ideal military uniform given the climatic conditions. The loose-fitting garments provided adequate protection against the sun and helped to hold in the body's moisture. Tents and blankets made of goat's or camel's hair afforded excellent protection against the cold of the desert night. The military kit of the Arab made it possible for Arab armies to move unencumbered by heavy baggage trains and gave the armies of the later Arab conquests a mobility, speed, and range unmatched by their enemies.
The bedouin nomads of the Hejaz moved with their flocks on a regular basis searching for pasture and water for their animals. These Arab nomads usually practiced a form of enclosed nomadism, that is, movement in a regular pattern that brought them close to settlements and towns where they could trade or purchase goods with the few meager resources that they possessed. The relationship between nomads and the settled populations was genuinely symbiotic in that neither could survive without the products of the other. The grain and dates that were staples of the nomads' diets were obtained in the oases where they grew; saddles, weapons, cloth, and other goods were manufactured in the towns. In return the nomad provided the town dweller with goats, sheep, and camels as well as the materials from which tents and blankets might be woven. Most bedouins were desperately poor and were almost always on the brink of malnutrition. Among bedouins in times of drought or starvation, it was a not uncommon practice to bury their female babies alive in order to free up resources for the surviving adults and male infants. Moreover, spending long days watching animals graze made for stultifying boredom. It is not surprising that the ghazw, or raid, became a way of bedouin life.
Raiding the camps and flocks of other bedouin or the outskirts of the towns where the horses and camels were usually set to grazing served two important functions. First, it provided a needed form of social stimulation, the only way in which the bedouin could practice the manly virtues of the warrior. For the most part these raids were more a rough sport than real conflicts. Pitched battles were usually avoided and casualties few. Raids sometimes resulted in individual combats between chiefs, but even these rarely resulted in death. The object of a raid, after all, was to steal the flocks. The second function of the raid was to act as a form of redistributing the wealth, a means of obtaining goods that would otherwise be unattainable by some bedouin families. In a poor country like Arabia where malnutrition was endemic, raiding was often the only way a man could improve his lot in life. Finally, the competition for water and grazing often led to skirmishes between bedouin clans. In difficult climatic times these skirmishes could become very intense since to be defeated meant to be driven from the water and grass and risked the destruction of the flocks. Still, it is hard to escape the impression that raiding was more a social enterprise than either a military or an economic one. Arabs often explain raiding in the following terms. "Our business is to make raids on the enemy, on our neighbor, and on our brother, in case we find nobody to raid but our brother."
The basis of bedouin society was the clan. Every tent represented a family; an encampment of tents was a ay. The members of an hayy made up a qawm, or clan. A number of clans related by blood and kin formed a qabilah, or tribe. All members of the same clan considered themselves as of one blood and submitted to the authority of a single chief called a sheikh, whose power to command was limited by the fact that all males in the tribe were considered equals who might reasonably disagree and even resist the sheikh in important matters. As an old Arab proverb put it, "A man's clan are his claws." Loyalty to one's clan was unconditional. Anyone committing a crime inside the clan was either banished or killed by the clan members themselves. The murder of a clan member by someone outside the clan required all males to avenge the crime in any manner possible, the usual rules of chivalry and combat being ignored in favor of treachery and ambush. This was the asabiyah, or blood loyalty, that rendered anyone outside the clan devoid of any moral standing that might place limits on revenge. During Muhammad's day the clan was the center of the Arab's moral universe. Only members of the clan had any claim to ethical treatment, and even this bound only fellow members of the clan. Those outside the clan lacked any moral standing and were treated accordingly.
The Arabs of Muhammad's time lived in a harsh society in a harsh land. There were few laws and no institutions to afford justice or restrain violence. Only the blood feud and its threat of retaliation against a wrongdoer provided a rough balance of power to limit violence. Blood feuds were not to be taken lightly since the feud did not end until the wrongdoer was dead or some member of his tribe had been killed as compensation. Later, it became a common practice to limit the feud by paying the blood-wit (diya), financial compensation usually in the form of a number of camels, to the person or clan against whom the wrong had been committed. This aside, anyone outside the clan remained without moral standing. When Muhammad divided the ethical world between believers and unbelievers in which the latter might rightly be enslaved or even killed by the former, he was only extending the morality of the blood feud to religion. The religious community of believers to which absolute loyalty was owed and outside of which there were no obligations simply replaced the old clan community of blood and kin.
Excerpted from Muhammad by Richard A. Gabriel. Copyright © 2007 Richard A. Gabriel. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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