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7-08-2015, 20:30

Introduction: the question of sources

In the present state of our knowledge it is not difficult to describe the physical setting for pre-Islamic Arabian history, and new archaeological discoveries in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan and the Gulf are producing much valuable evidence. Over the past century a vast body of epigraphical material – some 50,000 north and south Arabian inscriptions and the inscribed sticks now emerging by the hundreds in northern Yemen – has provided a wealth of information on the societies of the peninsula, especially the bedouins.1 But all this seldom provides a coherent picture of the course of events, as opposed to vignettes and bare details, and thus does not replace a literary historical tradition. There are external epigraphic records of the Arabs and Arabia, and historical sources – especially in Greek and Syriac – are often helpful.2 But this information too is profoundly discontinuous, and in any case represents the perspective of outsiders who regarded the Arabs as barbarian marauders and most of Arabia as a menacing wasteland.3 There is voluminous material on the subject in the Arabic sources, but herein lies the problem.4 The relevant accounts include a vast bulk of poetry and are frequently attributed to the pre-Islamic period, or are presented as describing events and conditions of that time; but – apart from the Koran – the sources containing these accounts date from at least two centuries later. In times past it seemed reasonable simply to compare the various accounts to determine which seemed most likely to be true.More recently, however, it has become clear that the Arabic sources on the Arabs in pre-Islamic Arabia – and indeed, on the first century of Islamic history as a whole – represent a fluid corpus that adopted a range of argumentative views on issues important at the time when the accounts were being transmitted and the sources compiled; the result was the colouring and reshaping of much early and possibly genuine material and the creation of many newaccounts.5 Most importantly, pre-Islamic Arabia played an important role in early Islamic preaching of the Word. In explaining the success of Islam and the Arab conquerors, scholars and commentators interpreted Islam’s emergence from Arabia as part of God’s divine plan.6 This involved presenting the pre-Islamic Arabs as naive barbarians – ragged ignorant nomads and eaters of snakes and lizards – and Arabia as a quintessential wasteland. This was in sharp contrast with the powerful, sophisticated peoples of the empires to the north and the richness and fertility of their lands: clearly, Arab victories against such formidable foes could only have been won withGod’s permission and as part of his plan for mankind.7 This paradigm manifestly proclaims a religious truth, and while it may at various points correspond to historical reality, it does not spring from that reality. In each case, then, we must judge – often on insecure grounds – the extent to which the motifs and stereotypes of this story of the spreading of theWord have affected our sources.