Al Shindagah Magazine The Arab Psyche

As we approach the 21st century, the Arab nation is experiencing a crisis that it must overcome to move successfully into the new millennium. In the second of a series of articles, Al Shindagah looks at the Arab psyche, past and present

The Arab PsycheThe Arabs Before Islam
The Arabs are an ancient Semitic people of the Middle East. They are proud in their belief that they are descended from the Prophet Noah's son Shem, and honoured that the last of the lineage of God's prophets was from their midst, and humbled that God enlightened mankind by revealing the Holy Word in their language.

The complex history of the Arab is conveniently divided into two parts of before and after by the Revelation. In the pre-Islamic period, the social structure which evolved in the harsh environment of the Arab Peninsula was based on the tribal unit. Some tribes from the era survive even to this day, while others perished during the process of God's unfolding plan.

The Holy Quran is a source of much sociological history of the Arab. In it is revealed information about some of the disappeared tribes. Among them were the people called the Aad, to whom God sent the prophet Hud:

Such were the Aad, they rejected the signs of their Lord, disobeyed His messengers, and followed the command of every powerful, obstinate transgressor. They were pursued by a curse in this life, and on the Day of Judgement (it will be said to them): 'Ah! The Aad rejected their Lord.
Away with them, the people of Hud!'
(Chapter of Hud, v.59-60)

Another tribe which became extinct was the Thamoud, to whom God had sent the prophet Saleh, as evidenced by the following verse from the Quran:

To the Thamoud people We sent Saleh, one of their own brethren. He told them, 'My people, worship God, you have no other God but Him. Now a clear sign has come to you from your Lord! This she-camel of God is that sign. Leave it to graze on God's earth, and let her come to no harm, or you will be stricken with a grievous punishment.
(Chapter of the Aaref, v.73)

The Arabic tribes which did not perish but which survived to the modern era can be divided into those clans of pure lineage and those peoples who have gradually become naturalised within the Arabic family.

The core tribe of the pure Arab is the Qahtan, whose land of origin is found within Yemen. Arab historians identify the first king of Yemen as Yar'ub bin Qahtan, who was succeeded by his son Yashjub, who in turn was followed by his son Abdu-Shams. This latter ruler was an early king of Sheba, and it was in his reign that the famous Dam of Ma'rib was constructed. That dam pooled the waters of the Yemeni mountains, and provided the basis of an advanced irrigation system to make this homeland of the Arab fertile and bountiful.

The al Qahtani established a number of civilised states, such as Maeen, Sheba and Himyar. The rulers of Himyar were known as the Tubba. Five hundred years after the birth of the Christ, the last of these Tubba was named Dhu Nuwas al Himyari. It happened that this king converted to Judaism and forced his people to do likewise. Dhu Nawas was responsible for a terrible incident which has been seared on the memory of the Arab ever since. In the year 525 AD, he gathered the Christians of Najran (currently a province of Saudi Arabia) into a large pit. For their crime of having refused to embrace Judaism, the Tubba burned them alive. According to the Quran:

Woe to the makers of the pit of fire supplied abundantly with fuel!
They sat to watch and witnessed all that was done against the Believers.
(Chapter of the Burooj, v.3-8)

The Arab PsycheArab historians believe that the ancient civilisation of Yemen was as signifi-cant as that of ancient Egypt and Phoenicia. It featured prosperous towns, advanced agriculture, and far-reaching commerce in precious fragrances and the tree sap now called gum arabica. For the wealth generated by the trade in frankincense and myrrh, the Romans called Yemen 'arabia felix', happy Arabia!

The great Dam of Ma'rib was the keystone to Yemeni civilisation. In the following Quranic verse, however, the story is recounted of its destruction:

There was for Saba a long time ago a Sign in their homeland, two gardens to the right and to the left. Eat of the sustenance provided by your Lord, and be grateful to Him for your fair and happy territory and for His forgiving nature.
But Saba turned away from God, and We destroyed their great dam to send against them a flood. We caused their two gardens to then grow bitter fruit and tamarisks and some few stunted lote trees.
(Chapter of the Saba, v.15-16)

It should be noted that several years ago the great Ma'rib Dam was recently rebuilt to collect the waters of Yemen once again. Its reconstruction will hopefully herald a new age of prosperity for the Yemenis. One of the generous financial backers of this achievement was His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahayan, President of the United Arab Emirates.

The second group of Arabs who have survived from the pre-Islamic era are those which are referred to as naturalised, being from the peoples which mixed and intermarried with the Qahtan. These Arabs descended from the Prophet Ismail who had settled in the holy city of Mecca. They are also known as the Adnani and the Nizari after their great-grandfather Adnan and their father Nizar bin Maad bin Adnan.

Among the prominent tribes of this group are the Madar, the Rabeea, the Iyad and the Anmar. These Arabs were concentrated in the upper region of the Arab Peninsula and were thus known as the northerners. One of the tribes which descended in this lineage was the Quraish into which the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) was born.

Today's modern Arabs therefore consist of the descendants of these southern and northern Arabs, and their off-spring due to intermarriage with other peoples. With the emergence of Islam and the subsequent Muslim conquest, their nation has spread far and wide across the world.

Pagan Beliefs
The Arab PsychePrior to the revelation of God's Word, the early Arabs did not have the benefit of a unified dogma to explain their world to them and to discipline their unruly habits. Though there were some Christians and Jews among them, these Arabs were primarily pagans who worshipped idols. During those dark days, Mecca's holy shrine (called even at that time al Kaaba) was burdened with statues and images of these false gods. The tribe of the Prophet, the Quraish, worshipped one of them, calling it by the name of Hobal. With the emergence of Islam and the conquest of Mecca, the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, cleansed the Kaaba of idols. The Holy Quran cites the names of some of the graven images which were smashed, such as Lat, Uzza and Manat, as evidenced by the verses, 'Have you seen Lat and Uzz, and the third goddess,Manat?'
(Chapter of the Najirn, v.19-20)

The pagan Arabs believed that these images provided a medium which somehow brought them closer to the divine, as shown in the Quranic verse:

Is it not to God that sincere devotion is due? But those who take for protectors others than the One God say, 'We only serve them in order that they may bring us closer to God.' Truly God will judge between them in their differences, but God guides not the false and ungrateful.
(Chapter of the Zumar, v.3)

Tribal System
During the pre-Islamic era, the tribe was the primary social and political unit of the Arabs. The primary function of the clan structure was to defend its members, whether right or wrong. Correspondingly, the tribesmen devoted themselves to protect their collective honour and they obeyed the dictates of their tribal elders. A pre-Islamic poet eloquently expressed this unquestioning loyalty as follows:

I am nothing but a member of my tribe.
If it goes astray, I will too,
and if it follows the right path, so will I.

The Holy Quran preached strongly against this blind loyalty and the destructive prejudices which resulted. The Word of God decreed a better criteria to differentiate between people, being their devotion to Islam. A Quranic verse posits "The closest of you to God is the most pious." In the Hadith, the collection of traditions collected from the life of the Prophet, Mohammed is quoted to have said, "An Arab is by no means better than a non-Arab, for piety is the only base for distinction."

Unfortunately tribal allegiances and prejudices have continued throughout Arabic history. Sad to say, but this tendency has been one of the primary factors which has weakened the Muslim nation by provoking disputes among the believers. Even during the modern era there is abundant evidence of this divisive devotion to tribalism. The fragmentation of the Arab nation is only of benefit to its enemies, as disunity denies the Arab his strength.

Practical Knowledge and Science
The Arab NationThe Arabic culture of the pre-Islamic era did not invent the sort of complex mythologies and creation myths which characterised ancient cultures such as Greece. Hellenic mythology was based on a belief system featuring many rival gods and goddesses in constant struggle against each other. Each of this godly pantheon had their devotees among men. One consequence of such a ritualistic and complex method of understanding the world was to broaden the classic imagination. Thus did ancient Greece gift mankind with such epics as the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Early Arabic tribesmen were more prosaic in their perceptions of the reality they inhabited. Of utmost concern were the skills needed to survive their harsh environment and the predators in it, both animal and human. As a consequence, the scientific knowledge which developed among the early Arabs was practical in nature, such as the astronomical knowledge useful for predicting the weather, for animal reproduction and for travel and migration.

The ancient Arabs also exhibited a full awareness of genealogy which they used to keep track of the complexities of tribal kinship. And as would be expected of a pastoral and nomadic people, skills gradually evolved for veterinary and popular medicine, with techniques such as herbal treatments, cautery and cupping among those in which they gained extensive expertise.

The always quarrelling tribes developed skills of warfare. Animal husbandry evolved not just for alimentary reasons, but for breeding faster, stronger horses and camels for battle. The settled Arabs, called the hathar, became skilled craftsmen of metal working, which was useful for fashioning the lethal daggers and swords for which Arab warriors gained fame.

The classic framework of philosophy and rhetoric which the Greeks developed was therefore far from the more mundane considerations of the early Arabs. The tribal lack of advanced urban centres meant that schools of specialised intellectual skills did not develop. The pre-Islamic Arabs were either villagers, pastoralists or traders, who existed with the less effete goal of simple physical survival.

The Need for Revenge
Pre-Islamic Arabs were adamant about the unquestionable law of revenge. In their view, a disgrace must be avenged, no matter what the consequences. One of their poets expressed this cultural fixation thus:

I shall wash disgrace with the edge of my sword,
no matter what this may bring about.

In this context, the pagan tribes believed that if the murder of a kinsman went unavenged, a bird named 'al Hama' would come out of the victim's skull and hover over his grave shrieking "Satisfy my thirst!" This would be the victim's demand to avenge his death and to quench his terrible thirst with the blood of the murderer.

The momentous revelation of the Word of God changed that mentality. The Holy Book prohibited revenge, as shown in the verse, "An evil deed must not be countered by another evil deed." Moreover, the new religion organised the political life of the believers in such a manner that judgement and punishment under the Sharia law was a right reserved to the state. The fact that the practice of revenge and even clan feuds still erupt within the Arab world merely proves the strength of the pre-Islamic legacy. That should serve to remind all believers that complete submission to God's will is a daily obligation for every Muslim.

A People of Eloquence
The early tribes did not commonly express their artistry with architecture and statuary. Instead they gloried in the intricacies of their splendid Arabic language. The tribes loved eloquent speech and the expression of their folk wisdom in clever proverbs. Story-telling and recitations of poetry were standard features of the social gatherings of both hathar and bedouin.

The abundant poetry which still exists from that era demonstrates deep insight into the human condition. Witness the erudition displayed by the following extract from the work of an early Arab poet by the name of Labeed:

Personal possessions and family are merely entrusted with us,
such trust must one day be returned.

Among the distinctive features of pre-Islamic Arabic literary expression are the skills with which its masters exploited the complexity of their language, and the precision of expression about real-life experience. The proverbs from the era are still in common usage among today's Arabs, which surely is an indication of their eloquence. A brief sampling:

Men perish as a victim to their greed.
Words are deadlier than the sword.
Prudence starts with seeking advice.
A free man honours his promise.
Whims are the enemy of wisdom.

The verses of the Holy Quran are indicative of the standard of rhetoric which existed at the time of the revelation, as the Arabs quickly recognised its brilliance. Muslims believe that the Word is so perfect in the language of its delivery that it represents a linguistic miracle. This perception explains therefore the insistence that the believers of all nations must learn the Quranic verses and prayer in the language which God chose for their revelation.

To those sceptics who doubted the divine source of the Holy Word, the Lord challenged them to produce one verse similar to those of the Quran.

If you are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, then produce a sura similar to these, and call your witnesses or helpers (if there are any) to stand beside you if you are truthful. But if you cannot, and surely you cannot, then fear the fire whose fuel is men who reject the faith.
(Chapter of the Cow, v.23-24)

The Character of Respect
For a tribesman to hold his head high among his fellows during the long epoch of the pre-Islamic period, he had to display certain elements of character which were highly valued in his culture. These qualities included courage, generosity, integrity and pride.

An unfortunate aspect of the life of both hathar and bedouin was a condition of constant insecurity. Attack from hostile forces could take place at any time. For members of the tribe, courage was imperative if family and property and honour were to be defended. Audacity therefore came to be a highly regarded attribute, whereas cowardliness and fear of the enemy was a disgrace.

Another highly valued element of character was generosity. The social rituals of the pre-Islamic Arabs enshrined this trait as the most worthy mark of a man. He must welcome the guest with lavish hospitality and do everything possible to make the visitor feel welcome. This obligation was so paramount that even an enemy had the right to enjoy hospitality for a limited period. A poem of the period declares:

I am a slave to my guest so long as he is my guest,
but I have no other trait that brings me closer to being a slave.

To indicate their eagerness to be hospitable, pre-Islamic bedouin used to light bonfires on hilltops at night to guide wandering strangers to their tents. It was said that some eager hosts used aromatic wood for their fires so as to guide even the blind to a warm welcome!

For such fiercely proud and independent tribesmen, a pre-requisite to manhood and leadership was integrity. The Arab thought of this attribute as indicative of self-esteem and decency. This was eloquently portrayed by the pre-Islamic poet and folk character named Antara, who was quoted as saying, "May I spend the night hungry and remain in that condition until I have earned my way in a decent manner." It was reported that when the Prophet Mohammed heard this line, he said, "I have never felt anxious to meet bedouin because of what is reported about them, except for Antara." The pride which was so central to the Arab's self-esteem was such that he could never accept disgrace. A free man was unwilling to live under the shadow of shame, as it would be akin to slavery. The person who would accept disgrace was considered akin to a donkey tied to a wedge in the ground, as shown by the following proverb:

No one will tolerate injustice except the donkey and the wedge.
The latter is beaten into the ground, while the other is beaten
above the ground and no one feels sorry for either of them.

The pre-Islamic Arabs possessed many other characteristics, such as love for prominence and charity for the needy. One of the poets of the time summed up these virtues as follows:

She reviled us for our small number.
I said that decent men are few.
We do not mind our small number when
as a result our neighbour is treated well.
This is not so with the neighbour of
those who are large in number.
And if one of our leaders passes away,
he is replaced by another whose deeds
are those of honourable men.

The Emergence if Islam
The Arab PsycheThe Word of God was revealed to mankind in the year 610 AD. The message brought by the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, introduced drastic changes to the political, social, intellectual and cultural life of the Arabs. The teachings of the Holy Quran were a blunt instrument to suppress the cruder aspects of the Arabic culture, and a fine instrument to uplift their better selves.

The revealed system was complete, as it established all of the laws necessary to regulate both personal and political life. Islam instilled in the Arab the high ideals and holy fire which enabled the miraculously rapid expansion of the Muslim world. Such is the power of the word of God!

The Revelation of the Word had a powerful impact on the Arab psyche, and the transformation which resulted will be the subject of the next segment of this historical investigation into the Arab nation.