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Before Islam
     Gindibu and his camels
     The nomads of Arabia
     Arabic oral poetry

The spread of Islam
Arab decline
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Gindibu and his camels: 853 BC

Shalmanezer, king of Assyria, fights a major but inconclusive battle at Karkar against his enemy, the ruler of Damascus. An Assyrian scribe, recording the event in cuneiform, notes the impressive size of the enemy forces: 63,000 infantry, 2000 cavalry, 4000 chariots and 1000 warriors on camels. The men on camels, the scribe adds, are brought to the battle by Gindibu the Arab.

This is the first known reference to the Arabs as a distinct group. But nomads from Arabia (probably the source of the entire group of Semitic languagues) have been spreading through the desert fringes of the Fertile Crescent since at least 3000 BC.


The nomads of Arabia: before the 7th century AD

The life of a nomad, without architecture or possessions (other than what can be loaded on a camel), leaves few physical traces. The richness of nomadic culture is in the mind. It is embodied in well-loved stories, in heroic memories of battles with rival tribes, in dreams of love or of the oases of paradise.

As such it is normally lost, once tribes settle. It merges into a generalized mythology. But an accident of history has preserved early Arabic culture in more distinct form. These nomads are the backbone of the first Muslim armies. Their way of life is revered by early Muslim scholars, who collect and record the poems and stories handed down in a long oral tradition.


Arabic oral poetry: pre-Islamic

The poems of the Arab nomads are invented, embroidered, recited by specialists known as sha'ir (meaning approximately 'one who knows', and therefore close to the English word 'seer'). Recorded in anthologies of the 8th century and 9th century, and dating from perhaps two centuries earlier, the surviving examples provide a rare glimpse of poems from a pre-literate era.

They fall into two categories. The earlier tradition consists of short poems of a passionately partisan kind. With few exceptions, the theme is praise of one's own tribe or abuse of the enemy. The other kind of poem, known as qasidah, is longer (up to 100 lines) and more elaborate in form.


The qasidah consists of four sections, the first three of which have well-established themes. In the opening section (nasib), the poet describes himself on a journey with some companions; they reach a deserted encampment, and he tells how he was once here with a loved one until fate parted them when their tribes moved on to fresh pastures (a sentimental beginning considered essential to put the listeners in a good mood).

The second section is devoted to praise of an animal, the camel on which the poet is riding. The third is a tour de force, describing a dramatic scene such as a hunt or battle. With the fourth section the poet finally reaches his topic - again usually praise, of tribe or patron or of the poet himself.


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