Mind of the Musulman: Arabia in the Time of Mohammed
Arabia in the time of Mohammed – No Arab nation – A dust of tribes without ethnic or religious bonds – A prodigious diversity of cults and beliefs – Two mutually hostile groups: Yemenites and Moaddites – Sedentaries and nomads – Rivalry of the two centers: Yathreb and Mecca – Jewish and Christian propaganda at Yathreb – Life of the Meccans – Their evolution – Federation of the Fodhoul – The precursors of Islam.
KNOWING the desert and the Bedouin, it is not impossible perhaps to form some idea of what Arabia must have been in the time of Mohammed. There was no such thing as an Arab nation, if by that name we mean an aggregation of persons subject to a regular government, knowing themselves to be of common origin and pursuing the same ideal. Caussin de Perceval, who has collected into three volumes the chronicles relating to pre-Islamic times, has been unable to draw from these documents any ensemble of facts linked together logically that would convey the impression of a nation. There is nothing but a dust, as it were, of tribes without connecting ties, without solidarity, in continuous conflict for trivial objects: cattle-lifting, abduction of women, disputed watering-places and pastures. There is no community of origin, none of those traditions handed on from generation to generation that produce solidarity.
A barbarous country, cast like a barrier into the midst of the ancient civilizations of Asia and the Mediterranean, protected by its deserts from invasion and with barely accessible coasts, Arabia has served as a place of refuge for all fugitive peoples, oppressed or dispersed from Persia, India, Syria and Africa; too poor or too savage, she has escaped the great conquerors. Part of Syria was indeed under the rule of the Greek Emperors of Constantinople; the Arab coast of the Persian Gulf was under the domination of the kings of Persia; and a portion of the Red Sea littoral was for a time under the Christian kings of Abyssinia; but the influence of these conquerors was always confined to these restricted regions. The ambition of the invaders was broken at the coast, and discouraged by the poverty of the country. "What is there to be found in your country?" asked a certain king of Persia of an Arab prince who had applied for the loan of some troops and offered in return the possession of a province. “Sheep and camels! I am not going to risk my armies in your deserts for such a trifle.” The only people who came to stay were fugitives and wanderers, all the wreckage of the old civilizations.
In the attempt to extract some general idea from the rubbish-heap of the Arab chronicles we may succeed in arranging these scattered families in two principal groups: the Yemenites, and the Moaddites. The former, the Aribas of the Muslim writers, that is to say the Arabs properly so called, came from Irak and India two thousand years before the Christian era; they reigned in Babylon in 2218 B.C., and in Egypt at the same period under the name of the Shepherd Kings.
They established themselves in the Yemen, but were driven out later and dispersed over the whole of Arabia. The latter, the Moustaribas of the Muslim chroniclers, that is to say “those who had become Arabs,” came from Syria and Chaldea. A section of these immigrants, to which the ancestors of Mohammed belonged, claimed to be descended from Ishmael, the son of Abraham.
A lively antipathy separated these two ethnic groups. The Yemenites had as their center Yathreb, which subsequently became Medina: the Moaddites had Mecca. The Yemenites, established in fertile regions, became a settled people devoted to agriculture; the Moaddites were nomads, shepherds and camel-drivers.
This is merely an outline sketch; in reality, all these tribes, of whatever origin, lived in a state of the most complete anarchy — the anarchy of the Semite. Without any bond to unite them, with no past, and with none of those great traditions that float like a flag over succeeding generations, constituting a common patrimony of pride and glory, these robbers and camel-drivers, shepherds and husbandmen, living from hand to mouth, have no history; their monotonous existence — a struggle for daily bread — leaves no more trace than the camel tracks on the sand of the desert dunes.
There is not even any religious connection; each tribe had its protecting idol, a vague souvenir of the worship of their forefathers. Here and there a few Jewish tribes from Syria, some Christian tribes from the Shepherd Kings.
There was no government, no social organization beyond the family and the tribe. Neither art nor literature is to be found among men absorbed by the anxieties of a dangerous life; there are indeed a few rhapsodical poems bearing a distant resemblance to the songs of our troubadours. There was no other ideal than the satisfaction of immediate wants, no aim in life beyond the pursuit of the daily subsistence — a prey, a lucky dash, a copious meal, such was their ideal; it might perhaps suffice for an individual shrunk into his own egoism, it could never be the ideal of a nation.
These warriors and robbers were willing epicures, and their poets would seem to draw their inspiration from the same source as Horace: “Let us enjoy the present, for death will soon be upon us.” However, in the midst of this general anarchy of tribes, wandering or sedentary, one fact has stood out clearly from the remotest ages — the antagonism of the Yemenites and the Moaddites; it is the old quarrel between the settled people and the nomads, between the husbandman and the shepherd. This antagonism was carried on into the conflict between Yathreb and Mecca.
Yathreb, more favoured than Mecca as regards climate, built against the moist mountain mass of Nejed, was surrounded by fertile lands. Its inhabitants devoted themselves to agriculture and petty trading, and as these are stationary occupations, they became sedentary.
Their manners grew gentler, so much so that after centuries of quiet life, they constituted at the time of Mohammed a peaceable population of cultivators, artisans and small shop-keepers. The Jews and Christians, who had come in considerable numbers from Syria, propagated their religious doctrines; and the Christian ideas of human brotherhood and forgiveness of injuries had in a vague way got into men's minds. The Jews, cradled in the old Messianic tradition, spoke freely of the coming appearance of a messenger from God. The worship of idols, undermined by both Jews and Christians, was to a certain extent abandoned. In short, in a period of general anarchy. Yathreb was a town in which order was maintained, and was the most peaceable city in Arabia.
Mecca, 250 miles to the south-west, lying in a sandy hollow, surrounded by bare and barren hills, was the abode of unruly men engaged in stock-breeding and the important caravan traffic. In contact with sea-faring nations through its port of Djeddah, it had become the principal entrepot of whatever trade there was at that time between the Indies and the countries of the West-Syria, Egypt and even Italy. To Mecca came the caravans from India and Persia, laden with a precious freight of ivory, gold-dust, silks and spices.
The men of Yathreb, wishing to share these tempting profits, had tried hard to divert a portion of the traffic to their city; in this they had not succeeded, for three reasons: firstly, because the caravans preferred Mecca as a sort of half-way house. Lying at an equal distance of thirty days' march from the Yemen and from Syria, it allowed them whether on the outward or on the return journey, to winter in Yemen and to spend the summer in Syria. Secondly, because the Meccans, being enterprising people, did not wait for the great caravans, but organized small private caravans of their own, bartering the products of Syria, Egypt and Abyssinia against those of the Euphrates valley, of Persia and of India. The camels of the Koreich were loaded with costly burdens in the markets of Sana and Merab, and in the ports of Oman and Aden. The people of Mecca became the carriers of the desert, the brokers between the peoples of Asia and the Mediterranean. The men of Yathreb, husbandmen and small shopkeepers, were incapable of any such enterprise. Finally, because Mecca had always been from the remotest ages, a place of pilgrimage, to which men repaired to bow down in the temple of the Kaaba before a certain black stone said to have been brought down from heaven in the time of Abraham by the servants of God Almighty. Diodorus of Sicily records that, in the lifetime of Caesar, the Kaaba was the most frequented temple in Arabia. The Koreich, the tribe to which Mohammed belonged, were the guardians of this temple, an office that brought them in appreciable profits.
Thus both religion and commerce made Mecca an important social center, bringing her great prosperity, and thereby exciting the envy of the men of Yathreb. They detested the Meccans, who returned the sentiment with interest. Moreover, they disliked them for their licentious mode of living. Rich, broad-minded, troubled by few scruples, idolaters, recognizing no law beyond the satisfaction of their own desires, the Meccans were hedonists, holding in contempt the refinements of morality.
A poem of the period gives an exact idea of their moral state: “In the morning, when you come,” says the poet to his friend, “I will offer you a brimming cup of wine, and if you have already enjoyed this liquor in deep draughts, never mind; you shall begin again with me. The companions of my pleasures are young men of noble blood, whose faces shine like the stars. Every evening, a singer, dressed in a striped robe and a saffron-coloured tunic, comes to brighten our company. Her dress is open at the throat; she allows amorous hands to stray freely o’er her charms. . . . I have devoted myself to wine and pleasure; I have sold all I possessed, I have dissipated what wealth I acquired myself as well as that which I inherited. You, Censor, who blame my passion for pleasure and fighting, can you make me immortal? If all your wisdom cannot stave off the fatal moment, leave me in peace to squander everything on enjoyment before death can reach me. Tomorrow, severe Censor, when we shall both of us die, we shall see which of us two will be consumed by a burning thirst.”
The men of Yathreb were narrow-minded, of the peasant and shopkeeping spirit, and were moreover lnfluenced by Jewish and Christian propaganda; they lived parsimoniously on small profits and quick returns. Compared to the wealthy caravan-owners of Mecca, who were great business schemers, they were small men, of austere morals, of regular habits, peaceable temperament and affable. The Meccans treated them with sovereign contempt, as misers, cowards and eunuchs. Returning insult for insult, the men of Yathreb called them bandits and highwaymen.
Religion was dragged into the quarrel. The Jews established in Yathreb had succeeded in converting certain families of the Aus and the Khazdradj. The Meccans, attached to the old idolatrous worship, not from religious conviction but by mundane interest, since the Kaaba attracted many visitors and customers, took advantage of these conversions to lash their adversaries with the epithet of Jews.
The rivalry between Yathreb and Mecca was of considerable importance; for, in the midst of general disorder these two towns represented the only centres of Arab thought. It was their quarrels that favoured the development of Islam, and at a later date became the cause of troubles and divisions in the Muslim Empire. If Mohammed, disowned by the Meccans, hunted and threatened with death, had not found refuge and support at Medina, it is more than probable that his great adventure would have miscarried, and that his name would have fallen into oblivion like those of so many other prophets of the same period.
Owing to their enterprising spirit, the Meccans soon became very rich. The caravan trade, doubled by the trade in slaves, returned huge profits. These Bedouins became all at once merchant princes, and gave themselves corresponding airs.
Prosperity has its effect upon character; it diminishes the fighting spirit, and produces a conservative tendency. One does not risk one's life without thinking twice about it, except when one has nothing to lose; bellicose nations are always the poorest, and among fighting men the keenest in a raid are those who are not yet loaded up with booty.
The well-to-do man wishes to enjoy his competence, and this he can only do when order and security prevail. Having acquired wealth, the men of Mecca intended to live a pleasant life; their interests were seriously compromised by the general state of anarchy that prevailed, under cover of which their caravans were being held up to ransom by robber bands, and by the conflicts between tribes which also interfered with their traffic. They were very indignant at these acts of brigandage on the part of the Bedouins, and preached respect for the property of others. Being men of action, the Meccans were not content merely to advocate the principles of order, they took steps to impose them. With this object several important personages of the tribe of the Koreich founded a sort of league, in A.D. 595, called Hilfel Fodhoul, or the Fodhoul federation. The Fodhoul intended to combat by every available means the anarchy that was so injurious to trade and consequently to their interests; they first attempted to suppress, or at least to reduce the conflicts between tribes by instituting truces, or suspensions of hostilities, under the most diverse pretexts: such as the Holy Month, a pilgrimage, important markets, etc. They even strove to bring the tribes together in groups, to federate them, using different methods to secure their object.
They began with what one might call an appeal to Arab patriotism; that is, to their hatred of the foreigner. In this connection an event occurred that favored their projects. The Abyssinians, led by the Negus Abrahah, had made an attempt to take Mecca, whose wealth excited their envy. The neighboring tribes, under the threat of a common danger, had agreed to combine under the leadership of Abd el-Mottaleb, and had repulsed the enemy.
The Negus having then turned his arms against the Yemen, had been driven out by the tribes united under the command of a Hemyarite prince. On receiving news of this last success, Abd-el-Mottaleb went in person to Saana to congratulate the Hemyarite prince in the name of the Koreich. This was a noteworthy step, as signifying solidarity, when sons of the same Fatherland drew together in mutual understanding. As soon as the enemy had been driven out, the tribes at once resumed their liberty; but the Fodhoul, encouraged by the success of their initiative, set to work to exploit the Bedouin sentiment of xenophobia. Circumstances favored their propaganda, since the Abyssinians on the west, the Greeks on the north, and the Persians on the east were all threatening Arabia. The Fodhoul were also contemplating a unification of the language, as a means of bringing the tribes together. People can only agree when they understand each other, and for this to be possible they must speak the same language. But Arabia was a perfect Babel of different dialects; the thread running through them all was certainly Arabic, but debased in each tribe by mispronunciation, or by the use of local expressions, to such an extent that a Bedouin of Nejed could not understand a man from the Hedjaz, and the latter could not make himself understood by his fellow-countryman of the Yemen.
The Fodhoul made very clever use of the poets, a sort of bards or troubadours, who sang the exploits of warriors and of lovers in every tribe. “These bards were commissioned to create a more general language. Their verses, which were recited everywhere, were to fix once for all the words intended to represent ideas: when several families made use of two different words to express the same idea, the word the bard had chosen was the one to be adopted, and thus the Arab language was gradually formed.”
Finally, the Fodhoul tried to create unity of religion — a difficult task — as each idolatrous tribe had its own protecting divinity; but there were Jewish tribes at Yathreb and at Khaibar, Christian tribes in the Hedjaz and the Yemen, while the Sabean creed and Manicheeism counted their adherents on the shores of the Persian Gulf. Each tribe held to its own beliefs. The Fodhoul could not dream of fighting against idolatry, since the temple of the Kaaba brought many visitors to Mecca. As astute men, superior to vulgar superstition, they conceived the ingenious idea of melting all the different creeds together so as to make one, and thus satisfy everybody. They drew the outlines of a sort of Arab religion which, while respecting the ancient customs of the Bedouins, would find room for certain Sabean, Jewish, and Christian beliefs. That is how they came to adopt the Sabean principle of one God over all; and the Messianic idea of the Jews as to the coming appearance of a prophet charged to establish the reign of justice. As certain tribes claimed to be descended from Abraham, they made a great deal of this patriarch, to please the Jews and Christians.
It is evident that the Meccans, whose minds had been widened by foreign travel, were very clever men. In working, from commercial interests, for the rapprochement of the tribes and for a fusion of beliefs, they were, without suspecting it, clearing the ground for Islam. The Fodhoul were the precursors of Mohammed, who, moreover, being a member of their league, without doubt drew from this association many ideas the source of which could not be accounted for in any other way.