Mind of the Musulman: Islam and the Desert
For any comprehensive knowledge of Islam and the Muslim, it is necessary to study the Desert — The Arabian Desert — The Bedouin — The influence of the Desert — Nomadism — The dangerous life — Warrior and bandit — Fatalism — Endurance — Insensibility — The spirit of independence — Semitic anarchy — Egoism — Social organization — The tribe — Semitic pride — Sensuality — The ideal — Religion — Lack of imagination — Essential characteristics of the Bedouin.
TO know and understand the Muslim, We must study Islam. To know and understand Islam, we must study the Bedouin of Arabia; and to know and understand the Bedouin, we must study the Desert. For the desert environment explains the special mentality of the Bedouin, his conception of existence, his qualities and his defects. Consequently it explains Islam, a secretion of the Arab brain; and finally it explains the Muslim that Islam has run into its rigid mold.
An immense plateau, rocky and sandy, 1,250 miles long with an average breadth of 500 miles, surrounded by a girdle of mountains with peaks rising 6,500 and occasionally 10,000 feet; between this lofty barrier and the sea a fertile strip of country 50 to 60 miles wide. That, in a few strokes, is the general aspect of Arabia.
The plateau is indeed what the Bedouins call it, “the land of terror and of thirst.” Situated for the most part in the tropics, and shut off from the softening influences of the sea by a mountain wall that arrests the moist winds and causes the rain to fall on the coastal strip, it presents every variety of desert nature: the lava desert, or Harra; the stony desert, or Hammada; the desert of sand, or Nefoud, moving dunes, alkaline plains, and sebkas, whose salt crust breaks under one's footsteps.
The whole scene is wild and mournful. Those gentle undulations that rest the eye in countries with a normal climate, where centuries of cultivation have formed the soil, are unknown in the desert. There everything is disjointed, rough, bristling with hostility. In the basaltic and millstone regions the rocks are hewn into sharp edges. The undulations of the surface are abrupt and steep, without any gradual transition.
If one could imagine the chain of the Alps submerged in alluvium up to within 800 to 500 feet of the summit, one would see nothing but a series of domes, peaks, needles, fallen rocks and denuded columns rising abruptly from the ground. That is what the Harra looks like, with its tortured skyline recalling vast cosmic upheavals.
Then there is the Hammada, a barren plain of stones, a vast glittering extent of naked rocks, with all the weariness of one colour, where the wind has swept away every particle of vegetable earth, where extremes of heat and cold have split up the soil into slabs and splinters — a monstrous chaos of broken stone, where no living thing can flourish.
Further on is the Nefoud, a sea of sand passing out of sight, from whence emerge high dunes like huge waves petrified, with parallel gullies formed by the wind that keeps them incessantly in motion. Of one uniform tawny tint, this barren plain is of an appalling monotony. It is the domain of death, and either burns or freezes. The porosity of the sand multiplies the surfaces of absorption and of radiation, and the sun by day heats it up to such a degree that one dare not venture across it; at nightfall it loses this heat almost instantaneously, and becomes covered with frost.
Under the effect of the wind which is bottled up in these gullies, possibly also from expansion, the dunes give out strange sounds, which add to the wild horror of the solitude. They literally hum, like a metallic top, and some travellers have compared the noise to that made by a threshing-machine.
Then there are vast stretches of gypsum, of a whiteness that is unbearable under the burning glare of the sun. And again there are the sebkas, once salt lakes, now dried up, on the surface of which the salt mixed with sand forms a crust full of holes over a quagmire.
Throughout the country vegetable soil is very scarce. Reduced to an impalpable powder by the general dryness, it is carried away by the wind, and is precipitated by the action of rain in less dry countries. Being subject within the same period of twenty-four hours to torrid heat and extreme cold (140° to 18° Fahr.), swept by winds either burning or freezing but always dry, the soil, whatever its nature, is stricken with barrenness.
Vegetation is rare in the desert; in the absence of rain, it can only obtain nourishment from water in the subsoil, and so can only thrive in deep basins, where the water-bearing stratum is near the surface. There are a few stunted plants in the ravines and the wadies — long depressions at the bottom of which one may find a little moisture by digging — some Artemisias, Brooms and Halophytic plants. Here and there, in sheltered places, a few puny shrubs of acacia and tamarisk carry on a forlorn struggle against the ever-encroaching sand.
There are no rivers, no springs, a few wells, far apart, constantly being covered by the shifting sand, and having to be cleaned out every time by the thirsty traveller.
Any considerable collection of human beings is impossible amid such hostile natural surroundings; they would be decimated by hunger and thirst. So there are no towns, nor even villages; only starveling families, for ever preoccupied by the anxieties of their existence, wandering in these wastes strewn with ambushes.
But if, leaving these dreary solitudes, one crosses the mountain barrier enclosing them, one descends suddenly into a wonderful country. The coastal region, watered by sea breezes, fertilized by the wadies, which in rainy weather roll in torrents from the heights, is, in comparison with the desert plateau, a land of plenty and delight. Between Medina and Mecca this strip is widened by the granitic plateau of Nedjed, an important mountain mass that catches the rains and feeds numerous springs.
Here are wells that never dry up, and oases where beneath the palms there is a two-storied vegetation of fruit trees, cereals, and perfume plants. Here too are pastures where horses, camels and sheep can thrive.
These are the favored countries of the Hedjaz, of Assir, Nedjed and the Yemen, of Hadramout and Oman, with populous towns such as Medina with Yambo as its port, Mecca with its port of Djeddah, Taif, Sana, Terim, Mirbat and Muscat. And yet the attraction of these fertile regions has not depopulated the desert.
The Bedouin has remained faithful to his desert, and as, by the side of the sedentary, less active tribes of a gentler mode of living, he represents the man of action restless and brutal, it is he who in the end has imposed his manners and mentality upon the whole of Arabia. It is him, therefore, that we have to study. No historical research is needed; immobility being the leading characteristic of the Arab tribes, the Bedouin has not changed. Such as he was when Mohammad drew him from his idol-worship, so we see him exactly described in the book of Genesis, in the passages relating to Ishmael or Joseph, or well represented in the bas-relief of the palace of Nineveh recording scenes from the wars of Assurbanipal, even so is he at the present day.
The desert condemns the individual to a special sort of life which develops certain faculties, certain qualities and certain defects. It is an existence full of difficulties, with danger everywhere; from the marauder prowling round the tent or round the flock, meditating a sudden dash: from the wind-enemy that dries up the water-hole and smothers the meagre vegetation in sand: from the rival who occupies a coveted pasture: from the soil that cracks into chasms.
The desert imposes as a first condition of existence — nomadism. It is not for pleasure that the Bedouin is always travelling, but from stern necessity. Cultivation being impossible on a barren soil deprived of vegetable humus and moisture, man is doomed to the shepherd's trade. But the pasturage, composed of sickly herbs growing in depressions sheltered from the wind, are of short duration and small extent. The flocks eat them down in a few days, when the shepherd must set about finding others; hence the necessity of being always on the move. When a pasture is found, he must make sure of its possession against other rivals, and, on occasion, use violence. It is a life of fever and of fighting, a rough and dangerous life.
But seldom can the Bedouin satisfy his hunger; he has everything to fear from nature and from man. Like a wild beast, he lives in a state of perpetual watchfulness. He relies chiefly upon robbery. Too poor to satisfy his desires, devoid of resources in an ill-favoured country, he is always ready to seize any chance that offers — a camel strayed from the herd provides him with a feast of meat: a sudden dash upon a caravan or the douar (camp) of a sedentary tribe furnishes him with dates, spices and women.
The practice of arms and the hard training he has always to live in have developed his warlike faculties; and, as it is these that enable him to triumph over the dangers of his wandering life and to procure the only satisfactions possible in the desert, he has come to consider them as his ideal.
The coward and the cripple are doomed to contempt and death. The respect of his neighbor is in proportion to the fear with which he inspires him. To win the praise of poets and the love of women, he must be a brilliant horseman, skilled in the use of sword and spear.
The women themselves have caught something of the martial spirit of their husbands and brothers; marching in the rear-guard they tend the wounded and encourage their fighting men by reciting verses of a wild energy: "Courage," they chant, "defenders of women. Strike with the edge of your swords. Wear the daughters of the morning star; our feet tread upon soft cushions; our necks are decked with pearls; our hair is perfumed with musk. The brave who face the enemy, we press them in our arms; the base who flee, we cast them off and we deny them our love."
The necessity of providing for his own needs makes the Bedouin an active man; he is patient because of the sufferings he has to endure; he accepts the inevitable without vain recriminations. It is not Islam that has created fatalism, but the desert; Islam has done no more than accept and sanction a state of mind characteristic of the nomad. His adventurous life gives the Bedouin courage, boldness, and if not contempt for death, at any rate a certain familiarity with it. Necessity compels him to be selfish. The available pasturage is too scanty to be shared, he keeps it for himself and his own people; it is the same with the watering place. He kills his infant daughters, who are the source of difficulties; and sometimes even his little boys, when the family is becoming too numerous. Hard on himself, he is hard upon others too; holding his life so cheap, he thinks nothing of his neighbor's. "Never has lord of our race died in his bed," says a poet. "On the blades of swords flows our blood, and our blood flows only over sword-blades. "
"We have risen," says another poet, "and our arrows have flown; the blood which stains our garments scents us more sweetly than the odor of musk."
"I was made of iron," Antal exclaims, "and of a heart more stubborn still; I have drunk the blood of mine enemies in the hollow of their skulls and am not surfeited."
In illustration of this insensibility may be quoted, two incidents in the life of Mohammed: Seven hundred Coraidite Jews who had been taken prisoner, were having their throats cut by the side of long graves, under the eyes of the Prophet; as night was falling, he had torches brought, so as not to put off the mournful business till the morrow. A number of Arab captives, taken at Beder, were being put to death, to one of them who begged for mercy the Prophet said: "I thank the Lord that he has delighted my eyes by thy death"; and when the dying man asked who would take care of his little child, Mohammed replied: "The fire of hell."
The solitary life of the Bedouin has developed his spirit of independence; in the desert the individual is free; he obeys no government; he escapes all laws. There is but one rule — the rule of the strongest.
Sometimes, when their independence was threatened by neighbouring nations, Romans, Persians or Abyssinians, the tribes assembled together to defend their liberty, but as soon as the danger was past they dispersed.
When Abraha-el-Achram invaded the Hedjaz with forty thousand Abyssinians, and after having reduced Tebala and Taief set himself to penetrate the fortress of Mecca, the neighbouring tribes leagued together under the command of Abd-el-Mottaleb; but when once the enemy had been driven back, the tribes resumed their liberty. This spirit of independence, this exaggerated development of individuality appears at every turn in the course of Arab history. The Caliphs had to struggle without ceasing against the turbulence of the tribes, who were hostile to all regular government and incapable of submitting to discipline. It was these tribal rivalries that in the end broke up the unity of the Empire by adding an element of disturbance to the disruptive forces of the conquered nations.
The spirit of anarchy is characteristic of the Semite; wherever he rules, there follows disorder and revolution. Jewish history, and that of Carthage, provide us with numerous examples; and, nearer our own time, the crisis of authority that has overturned Russia, has recruited its most powerful leaders and theorists from the Jewish element.
Any concentration of population is impossible in the desert owing to the lack of resources; at the same time, an isolated individual would be too feeble to contend with the dangers of a wandering life. Hence the Bedouins have been obliged to group themselves in families, and this is the basis of their social organization. The family enlarged has grown into the tribe, but the members of the same tribe do not all live together; they form small family groups united by the solidarity of birth and community of interests.
All the individuals of a tribe recognize the same common ancestor; they call this acabia, congenital solidarity, a rudimentary form of patriotism. In this way the Koreich, to whom Mohammed belonged, trace their descent back to Fihr-Koreich, of traditionally free origin, for he was regarded as the descendant of Ishmael by Adnan, Modher, etc. The members of the same tribe are, literally, brothers; moreover this is the name by which men of the same age address each other. When an old man speaks to a young one, he calls him "Son of my brother."
The Bedouin is ready to make any sacrifice for his tribe; for its glory or its prosperity this egoist will risk his life and property. "Love your tribe," says a poet, "for you are bound to it by ties stronger than any existing between husband and wife."
Throughout the whole course of Muslim history, wherever the Arabs are found, in Syria, in Spain, or in Africa, one notes the devotion of the individual to his tribe, at the same time as the rivalry between the different tribes. The notable upon whom the Caliph has been pleased to confer a high appointment loses no time in devoting himself to the interests of his own tribe, and at once arouses the anger of the others, who intrigue against him until they procure his disgrace, when the game begins over again with somebody else.
The Bedouin lives for himself and his tribe, beyond it he has no friends; his neighbor is the man of his tribe, his relation. Faithfulness to his pledged word, honesty and frankness only concern members of the tribe, the contribules.
Each tribe selects as its chief the most intelligent habits of sobriety and plunged into the worst debauchery. Mohammed declared that he loved three things better than all else: perfumes, women and flowers. This might be the Bedouin’s device; it is at any rate his ideal, and the Prophet did not forget it. His paradise is a place of carnal pleasures and material enjoyments, such as a nomad of the desert pictures to himself.
Ceaselessly absorbed by the cares of his adventurous life, the Bedouin concerns himself only with immediate realities. He fights to live and cares but little for philosophy. He is a realist, and not a theorist; he acts and has no time to think.
His faculties of observation have been developed at the expense of his imagination, and without imagination no progress is possible. It is this that explains the stagnation of the Bedouin over whom centuries pass without in any way changing his mode of life.
The Arab is in fact totally devoid of imagination; a contrary opinion is generally held and must be revised. The impetuosity of his nature, the warmth of his passions, the ardor of his desires have caused him to be credited with a disordered imagination. His language, poor in abstract words, and only able to express an idea exactly by the help of similes and comparisons, has maintained the illusion. Nevertheless, the Arab is the least imaginative of beings; his brain is dry; he is no philosopher; and he has never put forth an original thought, either in religion or in literature.
Before Islam, the Bedouin, just emerged from Totemism, worshipped divinities personifying the heavenly bodies or natural phenomena: the stars, thunder, the sun, etc. But he has never had a mythology. Among the Greeks, the Hindus, the Scandinavians, the gods have a past, a history; man has molded them to his own likeness, he has given them his passions, his virtues, and even his vices. The gods of the Bedouin have no distinctive character; they are mournful divinities, one fears them, but one knows them not. The Arab Pantheon is inhabited by lifeless dolls, of whom, moreover, the greater part were brought in from outside, notably from Syria.
Further, the Bedouin had not much respect for his idols; he was quite ready to cheat them by sacrificing a gazelle when he had promised them a sheep, and to abuse them when they did not respond to his wishes. When Amrolcais set out to avenge the murder of his father, on the Beni-Asad, he stopped at the temple of the idol Dhou-el-Kholosa to consult fate by means of the three arrows, called "command," "prohibition" and "wait." Having drawn" prohibition," which forbade his projected vengeance, he tried again; but" prohibition" came out three times running; he then broke the arrows and throwing the pieces at the idol's head, cried: “Wretch! if it had been your father that had been killed, you would not have forbidden me to avenge him.”
There is the same absence of imagination in the conception of Islam; its very simplicity is a reflection of the Arab brain; while its dogmas are borrowed from other religions. The principle of the unity of God is of Sabean origin; as is also the Muslim prayer and the fast of Ramadhan.
If the mosque is without adornment, that is not from any premeditated design, but simply because the Arab is incapable of adorning it; it is bare like the desert, bare like the Bedouin brain.
The Arab conception of the world was borrowed from the Sabeans and the Hebrews. The religious sects that came into being under the later Caliphs, and whose subtle doctrines exhibit an overflowing imagination, are of Indian and Egyptian inspiration. They represent exactly a reaction on the part of the subject peoples against the barrenness and poverty of the Muslim dogma and the Arab spirit.
In literature there is the same intellectual destitution. The Arab poets describe what they see and what they feel; but they invent nothing; if sometimes they venture on a flight of imagination, their fellow-countrymen treat them as liars. Any aspiration towards the infinite, towards the ideal, is unknown to them; and what they have always considered as of most consequence, even from the remotest times, is not invention but precision and elegance of expression, the technique of their art. Invention is so rare a quality in Arab literature that when one does meet with a poem or a story in which fancy forms any considerable element, it is safe to say at once that the work is not original, but a translation. Thus in the “Arabian Nights” all the fairy-tales are of Persian or Indian origin; in this greatcollection the only stories that are really Arab are those depicting manners and customs, and anecdotes taken from real life.
The oldest monument of pre-Islamic poetry, the Moallakat, are poor rhapsodies copied from one model: when you have read one of them you know the rest. The poet begins by celebrating his forsaken dwelling, the spring where man and beast come to quench their thirst, then the charms of his mistress, and finally his horse and his arms.
“When the Arabs, by virtue of the sword, had established themselves in immense provinces and turned their attention to scientific matters, they displayed the same absence of creative power. They translated and commented upon the works of the ancients; they enriched certain special subjects by patient, exact and minute observation; but they invented nothing; we owe to them no great and fruitful idea.”
From what has gone before, we may sum up the characteristics of the Bedouin in a few essential traits: he is a nomad and a fighter, incessantly preoccupied by the anxiety of finding some means of subsistence and of defending his life against man and nature; he leads a rough life full of danger. His faculties of struggle and resistance are highly developed, namely physical strength, endurance and powers of observation. Necessity has made him a robber, a man of prey; he stalks his game when he espies a caravan or the douar (camp) of some sedentary tribe. Like a wild beast, he sees a chance when it arises.
An egoist, his social horizon stops at the tribe, beyond which he knows neither friend nor neighbor. A realist, he has no other ideal than the satisfaction of his material wants — to eat, to drink, and to sleep. Having no time for thought or contemplation, his brain has become atrophied; he acts on the spur of the moment, we might almost say by his reflexes; he is totally devoid of imagination and of the creative faculty.
Finally, a simple creature, not far from primitive animality — a barbarian. Such is the man who has conceived Islam and who by the strength of his arm and the sharpness of his sword, has carved out of the world this Muslim Empire.