The Influences of Ancient Arabian Culture
The many kingdoms and tribes of ancient Arabia had close relationships with their neighbors to the east (the Parthians), north and northwest (the Byzantine Empire) and to the west (the Christian Kingdom of Aksum). These interactions often had positive impacts on culture.
For example, the art of jewelry was cultivated as a form of personal adornment and a symbol of wealth and social status. Music was also an important element of culture.
The Qur’an (or Koran, as it is sometimes spelled in English) is the sacred text of Islam. The book is considered a miracle because it supposedly was revealed by God to a people who were illiterate. Its divine origin is not a subject for historical or philological confirmation or falsification, but it does admit of scholarly scrutiny.
The book consists of a series of chapters (suwar) and verses (ayat). It contains a variety of law-making provisions, and rules for interpreting them have developed over time. The study of these rules is known as ilm usul aI-fiqh.
One of the rules is that the recitation of the Qur’an must be from memory. This is because the early companions of the Prophet did not possess a written copy, and they were primarily taught by oral communication. In addition to this stipulation, the recitation must follow general and specific rules of accuracy (dabt). These ensure that the recitation is pronounced exactly as it was received from the Prophet.
Among the Bedouin tribes that roamed the desert before Islam, poetry was central to the community, both a form of entertainment and a vehicle for recording tribal history. The poet was a hero who could stir up the tribe to battle or inspire it to celebrate its achievements.
The preferred poetic genre was the ode or qasida, characterized by rhyme and elaborate imagery, which conveyed the experience of tribal life. A good qasida was a powerful weapon against enemies, as well as a way to defend the honor of a defeated warrior or lament a fallen hero.
In a society with few written traditions, oral tradition was essential to the survival of Bedouin culture. Reciters—known as rawis—committed to memory long poems, sometimes hundreds of lines, and recited them at public assemblies and private gatherings. The earliest recorded Arabic poems are recitations by 7th- and 8th-century bards, but these recordings reflect the work of poets who had composed their works for centuries.
The Arabic discovery of tanning leather led to a revolution in the making of clothes. Rather than being stiff and coarse, leather became soft and flexible. The cotton muslin and silks of the Arab world were carried into Europe, as was Morocco leather, which is still considered to be of the highest quality.
The Arabs also made great advances in science. Algebra, as we know it today, is based on the 9th century work of mathematician Musa al Khwarizmi. This new algebraic order, building on Greek, Indian and Hindu systems, provided a unifying concept for rational and irrational numbers, geometrical magnitudes, and the idea of raising a number to a power.
Engineers like Ibn al-Jazari invented the crankshaft, which converts rotation into linear movement. Other engineers designed water clocks and improved the astrolabe, and astronomers developed tables and charts, which helped Galileo verify the Earth’s rotation and axis of tilt. They also studied the properties of light and the ways it enters the eye.
Inheritance passed through the male line, and women were often property of the tribe. The main social loyalty was to the family (with a focus on the son), then the clan, the section, and the tribe. Tribal leaders ruled according to spoken rules and were endogamous; this made the tribal ethos patriarchal in its explicit authority, although women played an important role behind the scenes.
A variety of religious beliefs existed in ancient Arabia, including Arabian indigenous polytheism and ancient Semitic religions such as Judaism, Samaritanism, and Manichaeism. The kings of the Himyarite Kingdom proclaimed descent from Abraham. The Himyarites were also vassals of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, and the annals of Sargon of Ninawa (8th century BCE) report his campaigns against the Himyarites. The presence of foreign rulers, with their religions, quickened the development of Arab political consciousness and gave rise to nationalism in the region. This trend, accompanied by irrigation and agricultural progress, was fundamental to the emergence of modern statehood in Arabia.Continue reading