Is There An “Arab Civilization”?
Islam and Arabism
ISLAM arose in Arabia. But from the ethnographic standpoint Arabia proper comprised at first only the Nejd and the Hejaz, the vast desert lands of the nomadic Bedouins in the center and northwest of the Arabian peninsula. It is the Greeks and Romans who stretched the name of Arabia until it was made to include the less barren south of the peninsula-”Arabia Felix,” i.e. the country from which frankincense came and which was inhabited by sedentary, relatively civilized peoples. However, the peoples of Arabia Felix neither were nor called themselves Arabs, and their languages-Sabaean, Minean, and related dialects, either extinct or still spoken today -are more closely akin to the Semitic tongues of Ethiopia than to Arabic.
During the formative period of Islam, Judaism still played a cultural and even a political role both in the Orient and in Africa. The last pre-Islamic state in the Arabian peninsula was the kingdom of the Himyarites (who were the heirs of the Sabaeans and lived in what is now Yemen and Hadramaut), which had become Jewish in religion before being destroyed by the Christian Ethiopians around 525 c.E., some forty or fifty years prior to the birth of Mohammed. The fall of the Himyarite kingdom was followed by a period of chaos, tribal unrest, and migration, the memory of which is preserved in Moslem tradition under the name of jahaliya (time of “ignorance” or “barbarism”). In North Africa, too, there were in the 7th century several important groups of Berber “Jews,” or rather Judaizers, notably among the powerful Zenata tribes, who inflicted some resounding defeats on the Arab invaders and thus delayed the progress of Islam in the West until the beginning of the 8th century. Even after the triumph of Islam the Jews retained, or regained for some time, their economic and political importance in several regions around the Mediterranean and Black Sea basins. One of the great powers of the early Middle Ages, the empire of the Khazars (a people akin to the Turks), which dominated the southern and eastern parts of what is now European Russia, professed Judaism from the 8th to the 10th centuries.
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