A thou­sand points of light

A new book looks at the his­tory of Arab peo­ples, em­pires and coun­tries from the dawn of civ­i­liza­tion to the present

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - BOOKS - • SETH J. FRANTZMAN

In the early days of the rise of Is­lam in 635 CE, the Caliph Umar was mur­dered by a slave. It was an im­por­tant time in the de­vel­op­ment of Is­lamic law and re­li­gion. The Qu­ran was be­ing pub­lished as a stan­dard text. “Muham­mad’s rev­o­lu­tion had shifted the whole foun­da­tion and fo­cus of Arab so­ci­ety from tribal to theo­cratic,” writes the au­thor of a new book on the his­tory of Arabs.

It is hard to cap­ture the en­tire his­tory of any group of peo­ple, but try­ing to cap­ture the his­tory of Arabs in one vol­ume seems like too much. The sub­ti­tle of Tim Mack­in­tosh Smith’s book: Arabs: A 3,000-Year His­tory of Peo­ples, Tribes and Em­pires al­ready seems like a mouth­ful. But this Ye­men-based British writer is will­ing to take on the task. He sees the his­tory of Arabs as a his­tory of po­ets, preach­ers, or­a­tors and au­thors. He speaks of words as hold­ing “mes­mer­iz­ing magic,” and in this 600-page story, he clearly tries to bring the English lan­guage to its heights in ex­plain­ing Arab civ­i­liza­tions.

Mack­in­tosh-Smith be­gins by not­ing that many books on Arabs or “the Arabs” tend to be­gin with Is­lam. He thinks this is a mis­take, and says it’s like be­gin­ning in the mid­dle. He is also par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in themes. The theme of tribes and peo­ples. The theme of dif­fer­ent civ­i­liza­tions, whether the Ro­mans or Byzan­tines, wash­ing over the Mid­dle East. “Lan­guage is what ties to­gether all those key his­tor­i­cal de­vel­op­ments based on in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy,” he writes. But he cau­tions this is a his­tory of Arabs, not of Ara­bic.

An­other theme in the book is frag­men­ta­tion. He ar­gues that the Arab world was too big to cre­ate a uni­fy­ing state, even if it was some­times uni­fied un­der oth­ers, such as the Ot­tomans.

Some of the fas­ci­nat­ing chap­ters are those that ex­plore the pre-Is­lamic Arab world. This in­cludes the Na­bateans, who con­structed trade routes link­ing Ara­bia with the Negev and Gaza. An­other in­ter­est­ing civ­i­liza­tion de­picted in the book is Ye­men and its great ar­chi­tec­tural achieve­ments, such as the great dam at Marib. This amaz­ing struc­ture was built in the 8th cen­tury BCE. It was a mar­vel of the an­cient world – or at least it should have been.

MUCH OF the world that ex­isted from that time to the ar­rival of Is­lam was fas­ci­nat­ing. But it was some­times over­shad­owed by the rise and fall of Rome or Baby­lon or an­other em­pire. Later, when it fell into dis­re­pair, it was for­got­ten. For in­stance, the glo­ries of Pe­tra and other Na­batean sites have only been ex­ca­vated re­cently.

Arab mil­i­tary con­quests were driven on by the camel and the horse. “The camel is a spear­shaft that gives you reach, but the horse is the spear­head,” the au­thor notes. This is an in­ter­est­ing way to think of camels, since from look­ing at them, it seems a bit odd to imag­ine armies rid­ing them into bat­tle, or even to a stag­ing area be­fore the bat­tle. But ev­i­dently they were quite use­ful when nec­es­sary and the Arabs used them to great suc­cess to conquer neigh­bor­ing lands.

To get a sense of the breadth of this book’s ac­com­plish­ment, it isn’t un­til a third of the way through the book that the reader gets to the first Caliph of the Umaayad Caliphate, Mu’awiyah. Even­tu­ally, a lit­tle later, we get to the one gov­er­nor of the prov­ince of Khurasan, named Al-Muhal­lab, who had 300 chil­dren. He had so many kids that they be­came their own sub-tribe. It is from here that the Ab­basids sprang forth. A fear­some re­bel­lion de­feated the Umayyads in Per­sia and Iraq. It was in Jan­uary 750 that, with black ban­ners fly­ing, they de­feated the Umayyad caliphate and its leader Mar­wan II.

As it hap­pens, I was at the Great Zab River in the past sev­eral years cov­er­ing the war on Is­lamic State. ISIS too had black ban­ners and once threat­ened to conquer much of Iraq. Unlike the vic­tory of the Ab­basids, ISIS was turned back at that same river and was even­tu­ally de­feated in Mo­sul. What is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing in this lat­est ac­count of the rise and fall of Arab em­pires is how much some of the frag­men­ta­tion and cy­cle of his­tory has sim­i­lar­i­ties with to­day. These days, regimes have os­si­fied and fell just as back then caliphs rose, gave birth to weak and deca­dent off­spring and saw their states over­thrown.

Mack­in­tosh-Smith is at his best dis­cussing these dy­nas­ties and the po­etry, colorful char­ac­ters and ta­pes­tries that held to­gether Arabs from the 700s to the 1700s. By the time Arabs gets to the 1800s, it has lost some of its vigor. Nev­er­the­less, the au­thor has not lost his in­ter­est in sto­ry­telling, as when de­scrib­ing the trav­el­ing mah­mal (throne room) that ac­com­pa­nied the King of Egypt in 1952.

Arabs is an ac­ces­si­ble and read­able ac­count of a com­plex and long his­tory. It is so full of sto­ry­telling and blend­ing of peo­ples and cul­ture that it sur­mounts the chal­lenge of try­ing to tell so much his­tory in one vol­ume.

(Muham­mad Hamed/Reuters)

CAMELS WERE used in Arab mil­i­tary con­quests.

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