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Modern History of the Arab World


Mohammad Fazril Bin Mohd Saleh
International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) 

            The Arab World is commonly related to Islam. Besides, its potentialities in the sense of natural resources and strategic location make it becoming the area of disputes among great powers since antiquity until today. It comprised of 22 countries which include the Arabian Peninsula the Levant and Northern Africa, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean. Arabic is the region’s principle language. Those countries that are considered as Arab states are Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, and Comoros.[1]
            Many people incline to regard the Middle East as the Arab World, and these two terms are usually interchangeably use. However, academically both terms are not the same. The term Middle East, which is been used since the end of 19th century, is close to the term Near East, which has been used in European scholarship to refer to the area of Arabia, the Levant, some area of Asia Minor, Balkan, Persian as well as Turkish territories.[2] On the other hand, the term Arab World is being used as defined by the Arab League. That means the Arab World is restricted only by 22 Arab countries which are the members of the Arab League, excluding Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, Cyprus, and some other Middle Eastern countries.
            This paper is basically dealing with the basic historical roots of the Arabs that can be traced back to the ancient time. The paper will be focused on the ancient Arabs characteristic including the people, language, and lands. It starts with the Historical Roots of the Arabs and Arab Society, followed by Accounts of the Arabs, Geography of the Arabia, Language and Writing System, The Characteristics of Arabs Identity and end with Arabism and The Arab World.
The Semites
            The Arabs are a very ancient people. However, its origin and history are still more or less uncertain. Some scholars, especially philologist divided human races into three great categories: (1) Indo-Aryan; (2) Turanian; and (3) Semitic. The Arabs are considered as the Semitic people. The term Semite originated from Sam Bin Noah, one of the sons of Prophet Noah (a.s).[3] The term Semite comes from in the Old Testament (Gen, 10:1). The fundamental believed that the Semites are the descendent from Eldest son of Noah[4]
The Semites refers to several groups of people who inhabited the ancient Near East. Among them are Akkadians, Arabs, Amorites, Canaanites, Hebrew, and Pheonicians. They were originally nomadic people who migrated and settled most of the Ancient Mesopotamia, Syria and the Levant. However, in today modern usage, the term Semite mostly refers to the Jews.

The Original Home of the Semites
            According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Arabia is the land of Semites, “It is supposed by some scholars to have been the original home of the Semitic peoples. Although this cannot be said to be proved, the studies, linguistic and archeological, of Semitic scholars have shown it to be probable.”[5] A. Sprenger is also agreed with this hypothesis, “According to my conviction all the Semites can be traced to Arabia. They divided themselves into a number of tribes and sections.[6] Moreover, De Goege mentions that the first home of the Semites was Central Arabia, where from here difference clans migrated to Syria, Babylon, Oman and Yemen.[7] The same opinion raised by Muslim historian by the name of Ibn Qutaybah. He writes: “Sam bin Nuh occupied the land lying between Makkah and the neighboring territory.”

Semitic Languages
            Semitic languages can be divided into three major groups: (1) East Semitic (Akkadian & Babylonian); 2) West/Central Semitic (Amorites, Canaanites/Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic/ North Arabian); and 3) South Semitic (South Arabian, Ethiopian). Arabic is one of the languages which originated from the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. It can be trace back existed in the ancient Arabian Peninsula as early as the 400 BC.”[8] Figure 1 below shows the location of the Semites and the spread of their languages.[9]

Figure 1

Abraham Lineage
            In one of the tradition of Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w), he mentioned that he was coming from the progeny of Prophet Ibrahim (a.s). Wathilah Ibn al-Asqa narrated the Prophet Muhammad said: "Indeed Allah chose Isma'il from the progeny of Ibrahim, chose the Banu Kinanah over other tribes from the children of Isma'il; He chose the Banu Quraish over other tribes of Kinanah; He chose Banu Hashim over the other families of the Quraish; and He chose me from Banu Hashim.“[10]

Arabs of the Arabia Peninsular
            Arabia Peninsular was the first place to be called Arabia or the Arab world before the modern age. As been mentioned before, Arabia was the origin of the Semites. Arabs are among the Semites. Historians classified the Arabs in the Arabia into two: (1) the Adnanite; and (2) the Qahtanite. 
The Adnan group inhabited the Northern part of Arabia, while the Qahtan group inhabited the south. The Adnanite, the descendent of Ibrahim (a.s), was also known as Musta’ribah or the mix, while the Qahtanite, descendants of Ya’rub Bin Qahtani Bin Hud, was known as the ‘Aribah, the Pure. Under the Adnanite, there were two main clans: (1) Kahlan, which consists of several tribes like Tayyi’, Hamdan, Kinda, and Azad, and (2) Himyar that included Tanukh, Kalb, and Juhayna tribes. On the other hand, the Qahtanite was comprised of two main clans, (1) the Rabi’a that consists of Bakr, taghlib and Abd al-Qays tribal units; and (2) Mudar that included Tamim, Huthayl, Asad, Quraysh, Qays, and Aylan.[11]

Arabs in Ancient History
The earliest account which mentions about the Arab people is the Assyrian sources, dated in 8th century BC during the reign of King Shalmaneser III. It was the list of booty captured of army in the Battle of Qarqar between the Assyrians armies against Gindibu the Arab.[12] Besides that, the Ancient Hebrews accounts & the Old Testament have also mentioned about the Arab people and the geography of Arabia.  The words arav, arabes, erev, & even hebr In the Old Testament are related to Arabs. Moreover, some stories in the Old Testament such as the story of Queen Sheba of Yemen & Solomon is defining the geographical aspect of the Arabia.[13]
Ancient Greek & Roman scholarships were also managed to record some information on the Arabs. For instance, Herodotus, who was considered as the most famous historian mentioned Saraceni, Arabes, Qedar, and Arabia several places in his works.[14] As far as the archaeological works is concerned, the famous Nabataen-Aramaic script known as the Namara Inscription is regarded as the earliest inscription describing the Arabs people and was written in Arabic language.[15]

Arabs as Mentioned in Islamic Sources and Literature
In the Quran, the term Arab has never been mentioned. Only the derivatives of it, such as the term arabiyy, i’rab and a’rab are mentioned in the Quran. Arabiyy has been mention in the Surah Yusuf, Surah al-Syu’ra and Surah Al-Fussilat. In surah Al-Zumar, verse 39 reads the Quran is the perfect language of Arabic (i’rab). In the Quran, Arabs were told to be the Bedouins (a’rab) that inhabit Makkah, and they were dividing into sedentary town dwellers and nomadic Arabs. The same goes in Surah 9 verse 97, when Allah s.w.t stress that Arabs of the desert (a’rab) are ignorant, therefore Allah s.w.t sent his last messenger, Prophet Muhammad s.a.w to teach them the right way.[16]
The Arabs call their habitat as Jazirat Al-Arab, the Island of the Arabs, and an Island it is, surrounded by water on three sides and by the sand on the fourth[17]. Al-Hamdani, stresses that the word arab derives from Gharab which means ‘west’ in Semitic language by Mesopotamians. It is due to the fact that Arabs mainly resides in west of Mesopotamia. On the other hand, according to Ibn Manzur, “all who live in the Arabs and their Jazirah and the people of their language is consider as Arabs.” In his book Lisan al-Arab, he mentions that the people who are the children of Ismail and lived in the Araba mainly in Tihamah are known as the Arabs.[18] 

Before the coming of the modern age, Arab World is referred to the Arabian Peninsula including the Levant. Arabia is the south-western peninsula of Asia, the largest peninsula on the map. Its area of 1,027,000 square miles holds an estimated population of only fourteen millions.[19]
Arabia can be divided into five main provinces: 1) Tihamah; 2) Hijaz (Makkah, Madinah, Taif); 3) Nejd (center land of Arabia); 4) Yemen (Hadramawt, Town of Ahqaf, Sanaa, Najram); and 5) Arud (Yamamah, Bahrain, Oman)[20]. The Peninsula slopes away from the west to the Persian Gulf and the Mesopotamian depression. In other words, the Peninsula acts as the backbone from western coast and to Midian on the north and Yaman in the south.[21]

Environmental Potentialities of the Arabia
            In classical writings like Ptolemy’s works, Arabs are divide into three; Arabia Felix, Arabia Deserta, and Arabia Petrea. Arabia Deserta included the Syro-Mesopotamian desert (al-Badiyah), Arabia Petrea (the rocky) centered on Sinai and the Nabatean Kingdom, having Petrea for its capital, while Arabia Felix comprised the rest of the Arabian Peninsula.[22] In Arabia Felix, it was famous due the agriculture products mainly spice. Here spice groves and attracted traders from across the sea[23].
Apart from that, Arabia geography is well known for their large desert area. The Badiyat al-Syam, the Syrian Desert, and Mesopotamian desert are steppe land. Part of the southern Syrian Desert is known as al-Hamad meanwhile the southern part of Mesopotamian steppe land is known as Badiyat al-Iraq. To be more specific, the deserts consist of three varieties. First is the Great Nufud where white or reddish sand and dunes are covering a huge area in the north Arabia. In the classics term, the great Nufud is known as al-bBadiyat. Then, the second part is known as Al-Dahna. It covers from the great Nufud in the north and to al-Rab al-Khali in the south. In the past, Al-Dahna was a favorite place for Bedouins to settle due the occasional rain which able for them to keep sheep. However in summer time, this area was being avoided by the Bedouins.  Then, the third part is Al-Harrah. The characteristic of the Al-Harrah is known due to corrugated and fissured lavas. It extends from western and central regions of the peninsula and extends north as far as eastern Hawran.

The most fertile land in the Arabs Peninsula located only in Yaman and Asir. Only in Yaman and Asir are there sufficient periodic rains to warrant a systematic cultivation of the soil[24]. In Arabian Peninsula, the rivers do not play significant role. Arabia cannot boast single rivers of significance which flows perennially and reaches the sea. None of its stream is navigable[25]. However, the wadi played important role for the Arabs. It serves several functions like determine routes for caravan and pilgrimage, and as the natural solution for flood problems. Among the famous wadi are Wadi al-Rummah and Wadi al-Sirhan
The significant agriculture product from Arabia is dates. It is known that, dates were originally come from the Mesopotamia.[26] Apart from that, horse and camel were given highly respect and care by the Arabs. It also resembles the wealth and influence of individuals. Of the animals of Arabia, two are preeminent, the camel and the horse, without the camel the desert could not be conceived as the habitable place[27].

Figure 2: The Arabian Peninsula

            The Arabic language today is the medium of daily expression for one hundred million people.[28] Previous centuries, Arabs was known for the language of learning, culture and arts through civilized world. Between the 9th and 12th centuries, much works- philosophical, medical, historical, religious, astronomy and geographical were produced through the medium of Arabic than any other tongue[29]. It marks the advancement of Arabic language as the significant factor that led to the development of civilized life. 
            Arabic, a language from the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family originated in the Arabian Peninsula is belief to be existed as early as the 400 BC.[30] Through the Muslims conquest of the new territories, the language began to mix with other local languages. For example, Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and Syria originally Semitic meanwhile, people in the Egypt and North Africa are originally Hamitic. In the previous Islamic government, the law, religion and matters related to government used the Arabic language. On the other hand, Persian language became the dominant literary language mainly in the eastern part Islamic dynasty. 
            In the system of writing, there are two systems start in early Islamic era. First is the Kufic style. The Kufic style, noted for its distinctive angular script appeared in the late 600s[31]. The Kufic style mainly used for arts like carving and stone decorations. The second style is Naskhi style. The Naskhi style mostly used for writing due to the more cursive forms which make it suitable for writing in the papyrus paper.

The pride of the Arabs in their language and writing system could rest alone on its own marvellous structural design, its comprehensiveness and its flexibility[32]. Furthermore, the Arabic language comes from several sources. Most of the experts believe that Arabs language originate from the Semite and others. According to DS Margoliouth, Arabic is “the classical language of the Peninsula should naturally have been not the patois of the Bedouins, but the idiom which had for so long served for inscriptions commemorating laws, contracts, treaties, dedications, vows, epitaphs and the like[33].

Arabs’ Pride
The ancient Arabs possessed the notion of Al-Muruwwah, means honour or dignity. Al-Muruwwah is the moral civic code which they need, especially in order to survive in desert. Among the qualities of al-Muruwwah are bravery in battle, patience in misfortune, persistence in revenge, protection of the weak, defiance toward the strong, hospitality to the visitor, generosity to the poor, loyalty to the tribe, and fidelity in keeping promise. These qualities have been possessed by majority of the Arabs during that time and can be regarded as the national qualities of the Arabs.[34] Most of the ancient Arabs were illiterate. They did not know how to read and write. However, they possessed gigantic memory. In order to conduct the civil code of Al-Muruwwah, they were required to memorized poetry and poems which were helped them to remember the code. Due to that, the Arabic poetry was also becoming one of the symbols of the Arab’s pride.[35]

Arabs Identity
The Arab people, since antiquity are united by the Arabic language. That is why the Arabic language has become a very important tool which helped the Arabs to build a great civilization. Besides, the Arab people hold the concept of unity and trust among each other when making a relationship or friendship. They possessed a strong sense of belongings. When they are in a group, they will obey and trust of that particular group. However, they were been known also as tribe community which are divided into several groups.

The Free-Modern Arab World
An ‘Arab’ person is defining by The Arab League as “a person whose language is Arabic, who lives in an Arabic speaking country, who is in sympathy with the aspirations of the Arabic speaking peoples.[36] The Arab League was initially founded by six countries in March 22, 1945. They founding members of the Arab League are Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Then, other 16 countries joined the league afterwards: Yemen, Libya, the Sudan, Morocco and Tunisia, Kuwait, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Mauritania, Somalia, Palestine, Djibouti and Comoros. Recently, because of the brutality of the civil war in Syria, membership of Syria is suspended.
The definition of Arab World in today modern era is basically based on the spirit of Arabness and notion of Arabism. The linguistic and political denotation inherent in the term Arab is generally dominant over genealogical considerations. Thus, individuals with little or no direct ancestry from the Arabian Peninsula could identify themselves or be considered to be Arabs, partially by virtue of their home language.[37]

The Arab World can be considered as the most influential region since antiquity, even until today. The origin of the Arabs can be traced back prior to the 8th century BC,and until 7th century CE, the Arabs people has come into a new era of civilization with the coming of Islam. The idea of Al-Muruwwah made them special and possible for them to facilitate the coming of Islam and the striving for a new phase of human civilization, which is the Islamic civilization. It is undoubted that the Arab World was the cradle of human’s civilizations & many Prophets were sent to these areas. Throughout time, Arab World is evolving. Nevertheless, the Modern Arab World is still tightly related to its roots and history. It has its own potentialities and a bright future prospect which has to be developed.


Cited Bibliography

Armejani, Yahya (1986). Middle East Past and Present. Englewood Cliff: Prentice Hall.
Esposito  L.J (Ed) (2004).  The Islamic World: Past and Present Vol 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gabrieli, F. (1981). The Arabs: A Compact History. USA: Greenwood Press.
Goldschmidt, A. (1991). A Concise History of the Middle East. Colorado: West View.
Hitti.  P.K.  (1964)The History of The Arabs: From the Earliest times to the Present. London: Macmillan.
Hodgson, M. G. S. (1974). The Venture of Islam Conscience and History in a World Civilization vol. 1. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Nadwi, Syed Muzaffaruddin (2009),  A Geographical History of the Quran. Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Book Trust.
Palgrave, W. G. “Arabia”. Free Online Encyclopedia Britannica 9th Edition. http://www.1902encyclopedia.com/A/ARA/arabia.html (accessed Feb. 9, 2013).
Retso, Jan. (2003). The Arabs in Antiquity: Their History from the Assyrians to the Ummayyads. USA: RoutledgeCurzon.
Rick Francona, “Who is an Arab?” Middle East Perspective. http://francona.blogspot.com/2007/04/who-is-arab.html (accessed Feb. 9, 2013).
Thomas, B. (1937). The Arabs, the Life-story of a People Who Have Left Their Deep Impress on the World. London: Thornton Butterworth.

[1] “Arab.” (2013). Encyclopædia Britannica Online. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/31348/Arab (accessed Feb. 12, 2013).
[2] Ibid.
[3] "History of Arabia," Encyclopædia Britannica Online, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/31568/history-of-Arabia (accessed Feb. 12, 2013).
[4] P.K. Hitti. The History of The Arabs :From the Earliest times to the Present. (London: Macmillan, 1964), p.9
[5] Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol XXIV, p. 620
[6] A. Sprenger, Geography of Ancient Arabia.
[7] Syed Muzaffaruddin Nadwi, A Geographical History of the Quran (Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Book Trust, 2009), p. 53
[8] L.J Esposito (Ed), The Islamic World: Past and Present Vol 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 31
[9] Yahya Armejani, Middle East Past and Present (Englewood Cliff: Prentice Hall, 1986), p. 10
[10] Narrated by Muslim and Tirmidhi.
[11] Afzal Iqbal, The Culture of Islam, The Classical Period (Lahore: Institute of Islamic Culture, 1974), p. 5
[12] Jan Retso, The Arabs in Antiquity: Their History from the Assyrians to the Ummayyads. (USA: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), p. 125
[13] Syed Muzaffaruddin Nadwi, A Geographical History of the Quran, Op. Cit., p. 7
[14] Jan Retso, The Arabs in Antiquity, Op. Cit., p. 276
[15] Ibid., p. 467
[16] Jan Retso, The Arabs in Antiquity, Op. Cit., p. 107
[17] P.K. Hitti. The History of The Arabs :From the Earliest times to the Present. (London: Macmillan, 1964), p.1
[18] Jan Retso, The Arabs in Antiquity, Op. Cit., p. 82
[19] P.K. Hitti. The History of The Arabs, Op. cit., p.14
[20] Palgrave, W. G. “Arabia”. Free Online Encyclopedia Britannica 9th Edition. http://www.1902encyclopedia.com/A/ARA/arabia.html (accessed Feb. 9, 2013)..
[21] P.K. Hitti. The History of The Arabs, Op. cit., p.14
[22] P.K. Hitti. The History of The Arabs, Op. cit., p.44
[23] B. Thomas, The Arabs: The Life Story of the People Who Left their Deep Impress on the World. (Hertford: Stephen Austin and Sons, 1971), p. 33
[24] P.K. Hitti. The History of The Arabs, Op. cit., p.18
[25] Ibid., p. 19
[26] Ibid., p.20

[27] B. Thomas, The Arabs: The Life Story of the People, Op. cit., p. 13
[28] Ibid p.5
[29] Ibid p.5
[30] L.J Esposito (Ed), The Islamic World: Past and Present Vol 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 31
[31] L.J Esposito (Ed), The Islamic World, Op. cit., p. 31
[32] Ibid  p.35
[33] Ibid p.33
[34] Israr Ahmad Khan, Towards Understanding the Mission of Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. Unpublished manuscript, 56
[35] Ibid.
[36] The Arabs League Charter 1964
[37] "Arab League." Encyclopædia Britannica Online. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/31483/Arab-League (accessed Feb. 12, 2013).



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