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7-08-2015, 20:31

The arabs in late antiquity

Extant references to ‘Arabs’ begin in the ninth century bc,10 and in ensuing centuries attest their presence in Arabia, Syria and Iraq, and their interaction with the peoples of adjacent lands. This interaction was encouraged in part by the Roman and Persian policy of using Arab groupings to protect their desert flanks and to perform military functions as confederates and auxiliaries. In Syria, an Arab presence was prominent all along the fringe between the desert and the sown,11 and inscriptions and literary sources confirm that many Arabs took up settled life in rural villages.12 The hinterlands of inland Syrian cities were partly populated by Arabs, and major cities such as Damascus and Aleppo had significant Arab populations. In such situations Arabs certainly knew Greek or Syriac – possibly both – and perhaps as their first languages.13 Arabs were also to be found throughout the pastoral steppe lands of northern Mesopotamia, where monks in the Jacobite and Nestorian monasteries occasionally mention them.14 In Iraq there were large groupings of Arabs; settled Arabs lived as both peasants and townsmen along the western fringes, and al-Hira, the focus of Arab sedentary life in the area, was deemed an Arab town (see map 9). Most were converts to Christianity, many spoke Aramaic and Persian, and they were largely assimilated into Sasanian culture.15 The sources referring to the Arabs describe them in various ways. In Greek and Syriac they were most usually called Sarak¯enoi and t.ayy¯ay¯e, terms which refer to their tribal origin or to their character as travellers to the inner desert.16 In Arabic, interestingly enough, the terms ‘arab and its plural a‘r¯ab are generally used to refer to tribal nomads. Although the settled folk of Arabia shared much in common with the nomads, they nevertheless drew a sharp distinction between themselves and the bedouins; and rightly so, for a tribesman is not necessarily a nomad. It is true that by the sixth century the Arabic language had spread through most of Arabia – if not so much in the south – and engendered a common oral culture based largely on poetry of often exceptional quality.17 But in none of this should one see evidence of a supposed archetype for Arab unity in any ethnic, geographical or political sense. The basis for Arab social organisation was the tribe.18 Genealogical studies in early Islamic times were already elaborating the lineages and interrelationships of the tribes in great detail. The Arabs comprised two great groupings, northern and southern; the formerwere traced to an eponymous founder named ‘Adnan and the latter to a similar figure called Qahtan, and both were further divided into smaller sections and sub-groupings. Ancient Arab history is routinely presented in the sources as determined by these tribal considerations,19 but modern anthropology has cast doubt on this and has raised the question of whether such a thing as a ‘tribe’ even exists. While the term is problematic, it seems excessive to resolve a conceptual difficulty by denying the existence of its object.20 The notion of the tribe, however ambiguous, has always been important in traditional Arab society; in pre-Islamic Arabia there can be no doubt that kinship determined social organisation.21 The problem can perhaps best be formulated as revolving around the questions of how far back this was meaningfully traced, and how stable perceptions of kinship were. Individuals were very often aware of their primordial tribal affiliations, and took pride in the achievements, glories and victories of their ancestors. Similarly, personal enemies often vilified the individual by calling into question his tribe as a whole. In practice, however, the vast tribal coalitions rarely acted as a unified whole, and the socially meaningful unit was the small tenting or village group tracing its origins back four or five generations at most. The perception of common descent was not unimportant to the cohesion of such groups, but even more vital were considerations of common interest. In order to maintain itself, the group had to be able to defend its pasturing grounds, water supplies and other resources from intruders, and its members from injury or harm from outsiders. Dramatic changes in kinship affiliations could occur when, for example, the requirements of contemporary alliances or client relationships dictated a reformulation of historical genealogical affinities.22 Such shifts could even occur at the level of the great tribal confederations,23 and were facilitated by the fact that no loss of personal or legal autonomy was involved – a ‘client’ tribe was not in the state of subservience implied by the western sense of the term.24 Through most of Arabia, the welfare of the individual was secured by customary law and the ability of his kin or patron to protect him. If a member of a group were molested or killed, this dishonoured the group as a whole and required either retaliation or compensation. Individuals thus adhered to at least the minimum standards required to remain a member of their group, since an outcast could be killed with impunity.25 This system provided security and guaranteed the status of tradition and custom.26 Violence in the form of warfare, feuding and raiding did occur, but the last of these has given rise to much confusion, and its scope and scale have often been exaggerated:27 there was no glory in raiding a weak tribe or ravaging a defenceless village, and fatalities on either side posed the immediate risk of a blood feud. Prowess in battle was without doubt a highly esteemed virtue, and Arabian society was imbued with a martial spirit that elevated the raid (ghazw) to the level of an institution.28 Still, this usually involved one powerful tribe raiding another for their animals,29 and the violence involved was limited by considerations of honour, by the ordinarily small size of raiding parties, and – where weaker groups were concerned – by networks of formal arrangements for protection. Headship of a tribal unit was vested in a sheikh (‘chief’ or ‘elder’, although other terms were also used), but the powers of this office were seriously limited, and the sheikh remained in power as long as the tribe felt this was to their benefit. He was expected to lead the tribe, protect its prerogatives and interests, mediate among its members and with other tribes, and serve as an exponent of muruwwa, an ethic of masculine virtue bound up in such traits as courage, strength, wisdom, generosity and leadership.30 While the chief had no power to enforce his decisions, it was not in the group’s interest to maintain a leader in power and yet regularly defy his decisions. The sheikh led by example and by exercise of a quality of shrewd opportunistic forbearance (h. ilm): he was a mouthpiece of group consensus whose reputation required assent to his judgement.31 The exception to all this was the south, where plentiful rainfall, carried by monsoon winds, allowed for levels of agriculture, population and sedentary development not possible elsewhere. The numerous small towns of the region thrived on the spice trade and enjoyed the stability of a highly developed agrarian economy with extensive terrace farming and irrigation. The towns were closely spaced settlements of tall tower-dwellings, often with a distinct ‘centre’, and their organisation tended to promote commercial and professional bonds at the expense of large-scale kinship ties. Out of this stability there arose a number of coherent regimes with identifiable political centres:Ma‘in, Saba’,Qataban andHadramawt, based respectively at Qarnaw, Ma’rib, Tamna‘ and Shabwa. The most dynamic of these was Saba’, which by the third and fourth centuries had managed to annex the territories of all the others. The early south Arabian entities were ruled by figures called ‘federators’ (mukarribs). It has long been held that this office was hereditary and had a distinctly religious function, but this now seems unlikely.32 Not unexpectedly, social differentiation reached levels unknown in lands to the north. The sedentary tribes were led by powerful chieftains known as qayls, and at the other end of the spectrum both serfdom and slavery were wellestablished institutions.Nomads were held in check by granting them lands in exchange for military services, thus rendering them dependent upon the regime.