Arabia is the largest peninsula on the map of the world. The Arabs call it 'Jaziratul-Arab' (68) which means the "Island of Arabia", although it is not an island, being surrounded by water on three sides only. Lying in the south-west of Asia, the Arabian Gulf is to its east, which was known to the Greeks as Persian Gulf; Indian Ocean marks the southern limits; and to its west is Red Sea which was called Sinus Arabicus or Arabian Gulf by the Greeks and Latins and Bahr Qulzum by the ancient Arabs.
The northern boundry is not well-defined, but may be considered an imaginary line drawn due east from the head of the Gulf of al-'Aqabah in the Red Sea to the mouth of the Euphrates.
The Muslim geographers have divided the country into five regions:
THE LAND AND ITS PEOPLE
- Hijaz extends from Aila (al-'Aqabah) to Yemen and has been so named because the range of mountains running parallel to the western coast separates the low coastal belt of Tihama from Najd
- Tihama inside the inkier range is a plateau extending to the foothills
- Yemen, south of Hijaz, occupies the south-west corner of Arabia
- Najd, the north central plateau, extends from the mountain ranges of Hijaz in the west to the deserts of Bahrain in the east and encompasses a number of deserts and mountain ranges
(5) 'Aruz which is bounded by Bahrain to its east and Hijaz to its west. Lying between Yemen and Najd, it was also known as Yamamah.(69)
One of the driest and hottest countries of the world, nineteenth of Arabia is made up of barren desert. The geological and physical features of the land along with its climatic conditions have kept its population, in the days gone by and also in the present time, to the minimum and hindered the flowering of civilized communities and empires.
The nomadic life of the desert tribes, rugged individualism of the people and unrestrained tribal warfare have tended to limit the settled population to the areas where there is abundance of rainfall or water is available on the surface of land in the shape of springs or ponds or is found nearer the surface of the earth. The Bedouins dig deep wells in the ground.
The way of life in Arabia is, so to say, dictated by the availability of water; nomadic tribes continually move about in the desert in search of water. Wherever verdant land is found, the tribes go seeking pastures but they are never bound to the land like the tillers of the soil. They stay over a pasture or oasis so long as they can graze their flocks of sheep, goats and camels and then break up their camps to search out new pastures.
Life in the desert was hard and filled with danger. The bedouin felt bound to the family and to the clan, on which depended his existence in the arid desert; loyalty to the tribe meant for him the same life-long alliance as others feel for the nation and state. His life was unstable and vagrant; like the desert, he knew not ease nor comfort; and understood only the language of power, of might. The bedouin knew no moral code- no legal or religious sanction-nothing save the traditional sentiment of his own and the tribe's honour. In short, it was a life that always brought about hardship and trouble for him and sowed the seeds of danger for the neighbouring sedentary populations.
The desert tribes of Arabia were continually engaged in an endless strife amongst themselves or made incursions into the settled lands around them. At the same time, the Arabs displayed a boundless loyalty to their tribes and traditions, were magnanimously hospitable, honoured the treaties, were faithful friends and dutifully met the obligations of tribal customs. All these traits of the Arab character are amply illustrated by their forceful and elegant literature, both in prose and poetry, proverbs, metaphors, simile and fables.
The Arab was thus a born democrat, individualistic and freedom-loving, practical-minded and realist, active and straight thinking and hated to do anything deemed vulgar or indecent by him. Not only was he content with his nomadic life and the frugal demands it made upon him but he also felt satisfied with or was rather proud of his migratory existence for it fulfilled his passionate urge for freedom.
To spiritual impulses he was lukewarm although he was absolutely loyal to the ancient traditions of his tribe. The fundamental virtues of an Arab, consisting of courage, loyalty and generosity, were derived from the concept of murauwah (manliness); and he was never tired of singing its praises in his odes and orations.
In places where there were sufficient periodic rains or water was available in wells or springs settlements used to spring up or the nomads came together during seasonal fairs and festivals. While such get-togethers exerted a civilizing influence on the life of the bedouins, the agricultural settlements reflected their specific characteristics depending on climatic conditions and economic and occupational features of the sedentary populations.
Accordingly, MAKKAH had a peculiar cultural development as had other settlements like Yathrib and Hira their own distinguishing cultural features. Yemen was culturally the most developed region in the country owing to its long history and political developments in the recent past. Because of its suitable climate, Yemen had made rapid strides in cultivation of cereals, animal husbandry, quarry of minerals and construction of forts and palaces. It had commercial relations with Iraq, Syria and Africa and imported different commodities needed by it.
Arab historians as well as old traditions of the land hold that the people of Arabia can be categorised in three broad divisions. The first of these were the 'Arab Ba'idah (extinct Arabs) who populated the country but ceased to exist before the advent of Islam. The next were the 'Arab 'Ar'ibah (Arabian Arabs) or Banu Qahtan who replaced the 'Arab Ba'idah and the third were the 'Arab Must'arabah (Arabicized Arabs) or the progeny of Ishmael which settled in Hijaz.
The line of demarcation drawn according to racial division of the Arab stock makes a distinction between those descending from Qahtan (70) and 'Adnan; the former are held to be Yemenites or southern Arabs while the latter had settled in Hijaz. Arab genealogists further divide the 'Adnan into two sub-groups which they term as Rabi'a and Mudar. There had been a marked rivalry from the distant past between the Qahtan and the 'Adnan just as the Rabi'a and the Mudar had been hostile to each other.
However, the historians trace the origin of the Qahtan to a remoter past from which the 'Adnan branched off at a later time(71) and learnt Arabic vernacular from the former. It is held that the 'Adnan were the offspring of Ishmael (Isma'il) who settled in Hijaz after naturalisation.
Arab genealogists give great weight to these racial classifications which also find a confirmation in the attitude of Iranians in the olden times. The Iranian General Rustam had admonished his courtiers who had derided Mughira b. Shu'ba and looked down upon him for having presented himself as the envoy of Muslims in tattered clothes, Rustam had then said to his counselors: "You are all fools....The Arabs give little importance to their dress and food but are vigilant about their lineage and family."(72)
Multiplicity of dialects and languages should not have been at all surprising in a country so big as Arabia (actually, equal to a sub-continent), divided into north and south, not only by the trackless desert, but also by the rivalry of kindred races and clanish patriotism of a passionate, chauvinistic type, affording but little opportunity for intermixing and unification of the country's population.
The tribes living in the frontier regions close to Iranian and Byzantine empires were, quite naturally, open to influences of alien elements. All these factors have given birth to numerous languages in Europe and the Indian subcontinent. In India alone, fifteen languages have been officially recognised by the Constitution of India while there are still people who have to speak in an official language other than their own mother tongor take recourse to English for being understood by others.
But, the Arabian peninsula has had, despite its vastness and proliferation of tribes, a common language ever since the rise of Islam. Arabic has been the common lingua franca of the bedouins living in the deserts as well as of the sedentary and cultured populations like the Qahtan and 'Adnan. Some local variations in the dialects of various regions arising from differences of tones and accents, wide distances and diversity of physical and geographical conditions could not be helped, yet there has always been a linguistic uniformity which has made the Qur'an intelligible to all. It has also been helpful in the rapid diffusion of Islam to the far-flung tribes of Arabia.