Muhammad: The Arab Character

Arabia Before Islam: The Arab Character

They were no doubt poor, yet they took life lightheartedly. They were in fact free from all the inner tensions and stresses which are so peculiar to our times. Men of strong passions were they, fiery of temper, ardent in love and bitter in hate, delighting in war, in the chase, and the banquet, not sparing the wine-cup at the feast, but of unmatched forbearance for cold, thirst and hunger when need arose. They were generous in their tongues, and eloquent in their utterances. They could be easily touched by every form of poetry, in praise of themselves, their kindred and their friends, or bitter shafts of blame and satire against their foes.

Writing, of course, there was little or none; the literature of the desert was preserved 'living on the lips of men and graven on the tablets of their hearts'; the perfect warrior was also the famous poet, and the name of many a poetess adorns the Arab bead-roll of glory:

The staple of their poetry is, however, largely a description of the joys of battle, the struggle for mastery, and the perils of the long, dark journeyings through the waste; the noble horse and camel, the keen flashing sword in the battle, the deadly lance and arrow; the swift, sudden storms that sweep over mountain and plain, driving the goats and wild antelopes in panic fear to their fastness, while the lightning flashes and thunder roars, and the rain-torrents hurry down the stony watercourses-these are the themes of their songs. And prefaced to nearly every one of t longer poems is a wail of lament over the ashes of a long-deserted encampment, once the home of a beloved maiden, a tearful note of human sorrow to attune the heart of softened melancholy. One type, one theme, is strangely absent from it all, -the devotional. Praise or prayer is seldom heard, though wild and terrible oaths are not wanting. The old Arab was, above all things, self-centered, self-reliant, confident that the cunning of his own strong right hand could conquer fate. His worship did not greatly pervade his life or his thoughts. The warrior would take the arrows of divination, but if the answer squared not with this desire, he could hurl them back wrathfully and scornfully in the face of his idol. (1)

We reproduce here some of the snatches of songs which would give a very clear idea to the readers about the sensuous delight of the Arab, his pleasures and pains, and his metaphysical beliefs:

He is a young boy of charming countenance;
He looks promising and is growing with the perfection of Harith
Age and youth blended together.
They are best of men,
What of their fine great ancestors
They are the best drunkards. (2)
When she flashes across the eyes of old hermit,
He who lies on the peaks of hill,
He too is enchanted by her beauty,
Lends ears toher and comes out of his hut.
Were not a human being, you would
Have been a full moon. (3)

There are innumerable verses of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry which are indicative of the fact that despite love for sensuous pleasures, the Arabs were very brave and had the courage to meet all kinds of situation manfully:

Roast flesh, the glow of fiery wine,
To speed on camel fleet and sure.
As thy sould lists to urge her on
Through all the hollow's breadth and length.
White women, statue-like, that trail
Rich robes of price with golden hem,
Wealth, easy lot, of no dread of ill,
To hear the lutes complaining string,
These are life's joys. For man is set
The prey of Time, and Time is change.
Life strait or large, great store or nought
All's one to time, all men to deaths. (4)

Now follow part of the dirge which a brave chief sang for himself when, before his death, he faced the foes that had overwhelmed him:

Upbraid me not, yet twain: enough is the shame for me,
To be as I am, no gain upbraiding to you or me.
Know ye not that in reproach is little that profits men?
It was not my wont to blame my brother when I was free.
Mulaika, my wife, knows well that time when I stood forth
A lion to lead men or face those that rushed on me.
Yea, many a slaughtered beast I gave to the gamers, oft
I journeyed along where none would venture to share my way;
And of times I slew, to feast fellows, the beast I rode,
And of times I rent my robe in twain for two singing girls.
And when 'neath the stress of spears our steeds plunged and broke and backed,
Yet mine were the fingers deft then turned from our line their steel.
And hosts like the locusts swarm have swept upon me alone,
And my hand it was that stemmed and gathered in one their spears.
Now am I as though I ne'er had mounted a noble steed,
Or called to my horsemen charge! Gain space for our men to breathe,
Or brought for a wealth of gold the full skin of wine or cried
To true hearts at play-Heap high the blaze at our beacon fire! (5)

These verses which have been taken from Hamasah, speak eloquently of the ideal of Arab virtue which can be expressed in terms of muruwwah, (manliness) and ird (honour). "It is not mere chance," observes Reynold A. Nicholson, "that Abu Tammam's famous anthology is called the Hamasah, i.e., 'Fortitude', from the famous anthology is caleed the Hamasah, i.e., 'Fortitude', from the title of its first chapter, which occupies nearly half the book. Hamasah denote the virtues most highly prized by the Arabs - bravery in battle, patience in misfortune, persistence in revenge, protection of the weak and defiance of the strong; the will, as Tennyson has said, "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield".

As types of the ideal Arab hero we may take Shanfara of Azd and his comrade in foray, Ta'abbata Sharr. Both were brigands, outlaws, swift runners, and excellent poets:

Of the former it is said that he was captured when a child from his tribe by the Banu Salaman, and brought up among them; he did not learn his origin until he had grown up, when he vowed vengeance against his captors, and returned to his own tribe. His oath was that he would slay a hundred men of Salaman; he slew ninety-eight, when an ambush of his ene mies succeeded in taking him prisoner. In the struggle one of his hands was hewn off by a sword stroke, and, taking it in ithe other, he flung it in the face of a man of Salaman and killed him, thus making ninety-nine. Then he was overpowered and slain, with one still wanting to make, up his number. As his skull lay bleaching on the ground, a man of enemies passed by that way and kicked it with his foot; a splinter of bone entered his foot, the wound mortified, and he died, thus completing the hundred.(6)

The following passage is translated from Shanfara's splendid ode named Lamiyyatu'l Arab in which he describes his own heroic character and the hardships of a predatory life:

And somewhere the noble find a refuge afar from scathe,
The outlaw a lonely spot where no kin with hatred burn.
Oh, never a prudent man, night-faring in hope or fear,
Hard pressed on the face of earth, but still he hat room to turn.
To me now, in your default, are comrades a wolf untired,
A sleek leopard, and a fell hyena with shaggy mane:
True, comrades: they ne'er let out the secret in trust with them,
Nor basely foresake their friend because that he brought them bane! (7)

The Arabs were also fully conscious of the blessings of unity and they always exhorted their clans to stand together:

Woe be upon you that you are scattered
Whereas the others are united.
The princes of Persia rally together to attack you
They care not the defence of forts,
They are marching upon you armed to the teeth.
They wil inflict disgrace upon you,
Gird up your loins and fall upon them.
The one who can stun others finds safety
Select your chief one who is courageous and brave
Who is not indulgent and can admirably stand the
Onslaughts of hardships
One who is experienced
Who knows how to serve and be served
Strong and formidable
Mature of age, neither old nor weak.(8)

These verses describe the rudiments of Arabian virtues of courage, hardness and strength. "Arab courage is like that of the ancient Greeks, dependent upon excitement and vanishing quickly before depression and delay." (9) Hence the Arab hero is defiant and boastful, as he appears, e.g.,in the Mu'allaqa of 'Amr b. Kulthum. (10).

A study of the poetry of the pre-Islamic Arabs will reveal that the Arabs wer generally cheerful; but whenever they thought of old age, their cheerfulness at once gave place to despondency. An old poet, Harith B. Ka'b, while lamenting over his youth, sings the dirge:

I consumed my youth bit by bit and it was no more:

I wasted hundreds of months

I have seen withmy eyes the passing of three generations.

They were gone; gone for ever

Alas, I have grown old, one:

Who can neither eat to his heart's content

Nor walk easily; a victim to the helplessness,

I spend my sleepless night in counting starts, (11)

Nabighah also sings with great pathos:

The man longs to live longer,

But the long life is painful for him;

He is deprived of the cheerfulness of his countenance,

And the cup of life is filled with grief,

The age betrays him terribly

And he finds little joy in life. (12)

Generosity and hospitality were also greatly cherished in the desert and are still prominent virtues of the Arab. A large heap of ashes and bones outside the tent was a mark of high excellence in a chief, for it meant that he had entertained many guests. "The Bedouin ideal of generosity and hospitality is personified in Hatim of Tay of whom many anecdotes are told." (13)

Hatim was himself a poet. The following lines are addressed to Muawiyah, his wife:

O, daughter of 'Abdullah and Malik and him who wore
The two robes of Yemen stuff - the hero that rode the roan.
When thou has prepared two meals, entreat to partake thereof.
A guest - I am not the man to eat, like a churl, alone:
Some traveller; thro' the night, or house-neighbour for in sooth.
I fear the reproachful talk of men after I a am gone.
The guests' slave am I, 'tis true, as long as he bides with me,
Although in my nature also no trait of the slave is shown. (14)

The Arab's generosity consists in ungrudging assistance to people who seek it:

He is generous and gives unhesitatingly
And bears all the oppressions boldly. (15)

This generosity was shown not only to the human beings, but even the animals and the beasts:

I traversed many a valley on the camel-back
Valleys where even the bravest would die,
There we heard the voices of the owl
As the bells rang in the darkness of night,
There emerge before us the tops of the hills
Near our hearth there came a wolf;
I threw bone at him and I showed no niggardliness to my companion;
The wolf turned back moving its joyful head
And looked to be a brave warrior coming back
Proudly with his booty. (16)

Another aspect of the Arab's life which deserves mention is the Bedouin's deep-rooted emotional attachment to his clan. Family, or perhaps tribal pride, was one of the strongest passions with him.

"All the virtues," remarks Professor Nicholson, "which enter into the Arabian conception of honour were regarded not as personal qualities inherent or acquired, but as hereditary possessions which a man derived from his ancestors, and held in trust that he might transmit them untarnished to his descendants. It is the desire to uphold and emulate the fame of his forbears rather than the hope of winning immortality for himself, that causes the Arab 'to say the say and do the deeds of the noble.'… Anacestral renown (hasab) is sometimes likened to a starong castle built by sires for their sons, or to a lofty mountain which defies attack. The poets are full of boasting (mafakhir) and revilings (mathalib) in which they loudly proclaim the nobility of their own ancestors, and try to blacken those of their enemy without any regard to decorum." (17)

The doctrine of unity of blood as the principle that bound Arabs into a social unity was formed under a system of mother kinship, "the introduction of male-kinship was a kind of social revolution which modified society to its very roots." (18)

"Previously house and children belonged to the mothers; succession was through mothers and the husband came to wife, not the wife to the husband." (19) Whatever might have been the nature of kinship, one thing emerges clearly that kinship among the Arabs means a share in the common blood which is taken to flow in the veins of every member of a tribe, in one word, it was the tribal bond which knit men of the same group together and gave them common duties and responsibilities from which no member of the group could withdraw. This bond was a source of great pride for them.

The tribal constitution was a democracy guided by its chief men, who derived their authority from noble blood, noble character, wealth, wisdom, and experience. As a Bedouin poet has said in a homely language:

A folk that hath no chiefs must soon decay,
And chiefs it hath not when the vulgar sway.
Only with poles the tent is reared at last,
And poles it hath not save the pegs hold fast.
But when the pegs and poles are once combined,
Then stands accomplished that which was designed. (20)

The enthusiasm with which the tribes' men have been urged to stand united and elect as their leader one who is wise, sagacious and brave, can be seen from the following verses:

Nothing can be achieved without the leader,
The leadership of the ignorant is not leadership,
The maters are set aright by the consent of the wise men.
Or fall in the hands of mischief-mongers. (21)

An Arab was no doubt wedded to his tribe and was deeply attached to his leaders but was not prepared to give up his individuality and follow them blindly. Every many ruled himself, and was free to rebuke presumption in others. If you are our Lord (i.e., if you act discreetly as Sayyid should) you will lord over us, but if you are prey to pride, go and be proud (i.e., we will have nothing to do with you).

The tribal solidarity was sometimes extended to a kind of confederacy amongst the various tribes. This alliance of the tribes was "brought through either hilf (confederacy, mutual oaths) or jiwar (the formal granting of protection). For many purposes the hilf and the jar, the 'confederates' and the 'client' were treated as members of the tribe in order to maintain it in existence.

While the tribe or confederation of tribes was the highest political unit, there was also a realization of the fact that the Arabs were in some sense a unity. This unity was based on common language (though with variation of dialect), a common poetical tradition, some common conventions and ideas, and a common descent. Language was possibly the original basis of the distinction between Arabs and 'foreigners' - 'Arab' and 'Ajam'. (22)

The Arabs had a keen sense of their being distinct from the other peoples and showing their superiority to them but there is not gainsaying the fact that it was the tribal solidarity which formed the bedrock of their unity and governed the actions of the best people. One should not, however, lose sight of the fact that even this solidarity was never absolute. An Arab is an individualist to the marrow of his bone and never accepts the position of an automaton which could work ungrudgingly at the gesture of his master.

Loyalty and fidelity were also the important virtues [of the Arabs]. Ideally a man ought to be ready to spring to the aid of a fellow tribesman whenever he called for help; he should act at once without waiting to inquire into the merits of the case. (23)

If the Arab was, as we have seen, faithful to his tribe and its leader and was prepared to risk his all for the sake of its honour, 'he had in the same degree an intense and deadly feelig of hatred towards his enemies. He who did not strike back, when struck, was regarded as a coward.' (24)

Humble him who humbles thee, close tho' be your kindredship;
If thou canst not humble him, wait till he is in thy grip.
Friend him while thou must; strike hard when thou hast
Him on the hip. (25)

The obligation of revenge lay heavy on the conscience of the pagan Arabs:

Vengeance, with them, was almost a physical necessity, which if it be not obeyed, will deprive its subject of sleep, of appetite, of health. It was a tormenting thirst which nothing could quench except blook, a disease of honour which might be described as madness, although it rarely prevented the sufferer from going to work with coolness and circumspection. (26)

The were in fact obliged to exercise their arms frequently, by reason of independence of their tribes, whose frequent jarrings made wars almost continued; and they chiefly ended their disputes with the help of the sword.

"The whole law of the old Arabs really resolves itself into a law of war - blood-feud, blood-wit and booty are the points on which everything turns." (27) The true Arab feeling is expressed in verses like these:

With the sword will I wash my shame away,
Let God's doom bring on me what it may. (28)

We may sum up the Arab character by saying that the pagan Arab "is a cynical materialist with a keenly logical outlook, a strong sense of his own dignity, and a consuming avarice. His mind has no room for romance, still less for sentiment; he has very little inclination for religion and takes but slight heed of anything which cannot be measured in practical values. His sense of personal dignity cannot be measured in practical values. His sense of personal dignity is so strong that he is naturally in revolt against every form of authority. On the other hand he is loyal and obedient to the ancient traditions of his tribe; the duties of hospitality, alliance in war, of friendship, and such like, are faithfully performed on the lines of recognized precedent, he keeps punctiliously the letter of the law, that is to say, of the unwritten law of his own tribal custom, but owns no obligation outside the strict letter." (29)

The Arabs had developed no great art of their own except eloquence and perfect skill in their own tongue. "If the Greek gloried primarily in his statues and architecture, the Arabian found in his ode (qasidah) and the Hebrew in his psalm, a finer mode of self-expression. The beauty of man, declares and Arabic adage, 'lies in the eloquence of his tongue.'

"Wisdom," in a late saying, "has alighted on three things: the brains of the Franks, the hands of the Chinese and the tongue of the Arabs. Eloquence, i.e., ability to express oneself forcefully and elegantly in both prose and poetry, together with archery and horsemanship were considered in the Jahileyah period the basic attributes of the perfect man (al-Kamil). (30) Their orations were of two sorts, metrical and prosaic, the one being compared to pearls strung, and the other to loose ones.

Poetry was esteemed more than prose. It was indeed a great accomplishment with them, and a proof of ingenious extraction, to be able to express themselves in verse with ease, and elegance on any extraordinary occurrence; and even in their common discourse they made frequent applications to celebrated passages of their famous poets. In their poems were preserved the distinction of descendants, the rights of tribes, and their achievements, the memory of great actions, and the propriety of their language.


1. P. De Lacy Johnstone, Muhammad and his Power (New ¥ork 1901), pp. 35,36.

2. Ibn Qutaybah, al-Shi'r wa'al-Shu'ara', ed. Ahmad Muhammad Shakir, Cairo (1367 H). Vol. 1, p. 109.

3. Ibid., p. 114.

4. Charles James Lyall, Translations from Ancient Arabian Poetry, (Edinburgh 1885), p. 64.

5. Charles James Lyall, p. ct., p. 64.

6. A Literary History of the Arabs (Cambridge 1933), p. 79.

7. Reynold A. Nicholson, op cit, pp. 79-80. English translation of the Lamiyya by G. Hughes (London 1896), quoted in ibid., p. 80.

8. Ibn Qutaybah, op.cit., pp., 153-154.

9.Mahaffy: Social Life in Greece, quoted by Nicholson, op.cit., p. 82.

10. Nicholson, Ibid., p. 52.

11. Ibn Qutaybah, p. 52.

12. Ibid., p. 111.

13. Nicholson, op.cit., p. 85.

14. Hamasah, 729, quoted ibid, p. 87.

15. Ibn Qutaybah, p. 84.

16. Ibid., p. 164.

17. Nicholson, op. cit., p. 100.

18. W. Robertson Smith, Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia, (2nd Edition London 1903), p. 182.

19. Ibid., p. 172.

20. Nicholson, op.cit., p. 83.

21. Ibn Qutaybah, p. 145.

22. W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad At Mecca (Oxford 1960), pp. 17-18.

23. W. Montgomery Watt, op. cit. p. 21.

24. Nicholson, op. cit., p. 92.

25. Hamasah, p. 321 quoted by Nicholson, op. cit., p. 93.

26. Nicholson, op. cit., p. 93.

27. W. Robertson Smith, Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia, p. 55.

28. Hamasah, quoted by Prof. Nicholson, op. cit., p. 93.

29. De Lacy O'Leary, Arabia Before Muhammad, pp. 20-21.

30. Philip K. Hitti, History of Arabs, pp. 90-91.