Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

1. Christianity and Islam |
Success and triumph, then a terrible reversal

Christianity and Islam is drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 10, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

By the seventh century the cross rose above churches from Ireland to the Indian Ocean, but failure in Arabia leads to Christianity’s worst setback in 2,000 years

Christianity and Islam - Success and triumph, then a terrible reversal

Christianity and Islam - Success and triumph, then a terrible reversal
Harith ibn Jabala, the sheikh of the Monophysite Christian Banu Ghassan tribe, entertains the patriarch of Antioch with a meal of camel meat, to emphasize his utter contempt for the orthodox Sacrament.

Into affluent sixth-century Constantinople, with its expensive tastes, poured a steady avalanche of Oriental goods. Its host of imperial courtiers were clothed in Chinese silk. The pomp and ritual of its great cathedral and churches required huge quantities of incense and other fine Oriental materials. The wood of the palace’s interior walls was impregnated with aloe to afford a pleasant scent for the occupants. Food required rare spices, people rare perfumes. Bribes and gifts to barbarian chieftains required exotic cloth, precious stones, pepper and other products from India.

Early on, these luxuries reached the west via an overland route from the valley of the Indus, through the Khyber Pass, Afghanistan, the Caspian coast and Persia. Then sea routes were developed across the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and the Greeks built a canal connecting the Red Sea to the Nile, so that waterborne transport could run all the way from China and India to the Mediterranean. However, the Romans neglected the canal because of its high upkeep costs, so that by the fifth century the cargoes were carried only as far as the South Arabian ports, then by caravan northward. This created the biggest economic boom the Arabian Peninsula had ever seen, and in turn brought that strangely fascinating people known as the Arabs bursting irreversibly onto the stage of world affairs.

The Arabs were neither a race nor a nation, however. In fact, the only denominators common among them were a uniform clan and tribal system, and a passionate interest in a certain style of poetry.

The nomads of northern Arabia emerge in English and French as “the Bedouin,” from the Arabic word for desert-dweller. Hard, sinewy and lean like the desert itself, they held in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a peculiar fascination for Europeans, especially Englishmen, and occasionally Englishwomen. The addiction was distinctly upper crust: Thomas Edward Lawrence “of Arabia,” who organized a motley Bedouin army against the Turks during the First World War; Sir Harry St. John Philby, who was the first European to make it across the Empty Quarter east to west, and later became himself a Muslim;1 Sir John Bagot Glubb, otherwise “Glubb Pasha,” who organized the Arab Legion against Germany during the Second World War, and against the Israelis after it, only to be dismissed in 1956, when the Arab forces were purged of British influence; and Lady Anne Noel Blunt, who lived with the Bedouin while searching out Arab living habits to embellish her diary and Arabian horses to improve her stable.

To describe Bedouin life in the early twentieth century is to describe it in the sixth, for it scarcely changed. The nomad still ate, traveled, slept and traded much as he did in the age of the Roman emperors Constantine or Justinian. But Bedouin life does not reach back into antiquity. It probably developed during the first century as a utilitarian means of gaining a livelihood out of the advancing desert. For the Bedouin was not a barbarian. To move herds of sheep, goats and camels to wherever there was moisture enough to water and pasture them required a sophisticated expertise, just as dry-dirt cattle ranching does today.

In winter and spring the Bedouin followed the elusive rainfall, in summer he remained close to the sources of permanent water. Every aspect of his life was fashioned to make such an existence possible. His diet of dates and camel or goat’s milk and goat meat was varied in good times with flour from the cultivated areas in South Arabia, or on occasion with the delicacy of locusts baked in salt. What water he found went to the livestock.

His clothing–an undershirt to the knees and a robe to the ankles–hung loose upon him so that the air insulated him against the heat. A shawl wound about his face and tied with a cord to his head shielded eyes against sun–and ears, nose, mouth and eyes against sand and dust. His goat-hair tent was a technological triumph. In summer, its top shaded him from the sun and the sides were raised to admit the cooling breeze. In winter, the sides came down, and when the rare rains descended violently upon it, the loosely woven fibers would rapidly swell and waterproof the dwelling.

The family tent was partitioned, a section for the women and children and one where the family head entertained his male guests. The chief or sheikh had a special tent, a diwan, or reception hall, used for tribal business and “occasions of state.” All tools and utensils and the tents themselves were portable, with boxes and carrying cases into which everything fit. Rapid mobility was essential.

All of this could work only if the social unit was both cohesive and small. Each tent in a Bedouin camp represented a family unit. Several closely related family units might pasture their flocks together in winter, then join other such groups around an oasis in the summer. All these family groupings together formed the clan, the central factor in Bedouin life.

The clan constituted every Bedouin’s society. It provided his means of livelihood; it represented his law and government; it served as his school, private club, labor union, insurance company, and the executor of his estate. The clan also defined the limits of the tha’r, the rule of vendetta that was universal throughout the desert. Murder of a clansman by an outsider demanded money or blood, and the resulting feud might go on for half a century.

The chief or sayyid of the clan was chosen at a meeting of all the members, at which anyone could speak and everyone held a veto. He came, however, from what was regarded as the clan’s noblest family, and was picked for his ability, generosity, affluence, eloquence and sense of justice. His term of office lasted as long as he could demonstrate these qualities, and no longer. Other clan members addressed him as an equal. “There is no king on the desert,” the saying went. “The Bedouin,” says the historian Philip K. Hitti in his classic History of the Arabs, “is a born democrat.”

The chief could make treaties on behalf of the clan, ransom members made prisoner, and settle internal disputes. He must care for the clan’s poor, and he could claim one-fourth of anything won in the Bedouin national sport, razzia, raiding other clans and robbing them, if possible without loss of life. Few relished the inescapable tha’r if a life were claimed. Finally, a powerful chief could pledge his protection to an individual, or a weaker clan, or–for a price–to a caravan passing through his territory. Such a pledge was expensive, inviolate, and consistently fulfilled.

The clans banded together into tribes that, nominally anyway, claimed one common ancestor, as often did the individual clan. Thus the word banu (sons of) might designate a tribe or a clan. The clans in the great Banu Ghassan, the Christian allies of Constantinople, considered themselves descendants of Ghassan. The tribes, in turn, often combined for purposes of war or diplomacy into confederacies. But these were ephemeral, and frequently dissolved or regrouped in new ways. Even the tribes would split when they became too large, or ally themselves to other tribes when they became weak. What did not change was the clan, and Sir William Muir, whose definitive nineteenth-century biography of Muhammad was the first in the English language and remains unsurpassed, noted that the same clan groups that lived around Mecca in Muhammad’s day were still there twelve hundred years later.2

Crimes within the clan might be punished by the loss of a hand or even execution. But the clan’s greatest power over the individual lay in its ability to expel him. In the desert, where any stranger was an enemy, such a prospect was unthinkable. The ostracized Bedouin lived alone. His family rejected him. Every hand was turned against him. Other clans, regarding him as flawed, would not take him in. Death by starvation or thirst was slow and almost inevitable. Expulsion therefore was rare, and social individualism was virtually non-existent.

Though democrats, the Bedouin were also socially stratified. Many had slaves they had captured through raiding. And running within the system, then and now, were the equivalent of the Hindu castes. Some families were permanently laborers, some blacksmiths, some shepherds. Others, known as the “noble” Bedouin, disdained menial work and confined themselves to riding the camels, herding the livestock, plotting the raids and leading the frequent battles over grazing grounds. To take a wife above one’s social status invited reprisals from her family. To marry beneath one’s station was to risk expulsion from your own.3

The term Arab, probably deriving from an Arabic word meaning “nomad,” in the sixth century designated the six million or so inhabitants of the vast peninsula that lies between the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, along with those in and around the arid tongue of the Syro-Mesopotamian Desert that reaches out of the peninsula to the north.4 The peninsula, a quarter the area of Europe and a third of the continental United States, was regarded as (and in the main still is) an arid, riverless, harborless, treeless, trackless waste–until the twentieth century, that is, when the “waste” was discovered to be accommodating the world’s largest and most easily productive oil reserves.

Oil or no oil, however, some parts of it can go rainless for ten years at a time. When the rain does come, it often deluges the dried riverbeds called wadis in torrential flash floods. Long before it can reach the sea, the water vanishes into the ground, where the inhabitants sink wells, five hundred feet deep or more, to find it. Occasionally, it springs to the surface in an oasis, around which grow settlements, towns and a hundred varieties of date palm, whose fruit, along with camel milk, was until recent times the almost total diet of most inhabitants.

Within this million-square-mile landmass, several features distinguish themselves. In the north spreads the Great Nefud, a forty-thousand-square-mile tract of reddish-white sand, which infrequent winter rains sometimes turn green with a thin carpet of grass, a joy and a bonanza for the nomads who eke a pastoral living out of it. Spreading south from the Nefud and then sprawling east and west lies the “Empty Quarter,” the largest continuous body of sand in the world, where winds can sweep the dunes to the height of a forty-story building, sometimes three to four miles in length.

To the south, conditions ease. Oman, guarding the peninsula’s southeast corner, gets rain enough to support rice agriculture. The topsoil of Hadramawt along the south coast produces a dependable crop. Near the southwest corner, a very different world appears. The high mountains of Yemen are lush with rich foliage, the valleys thick with livestock. Yet it is in the west that history unfolds. Ridge upon ridge of gloomy sandstone and porphyritic mountains line the Red Sea coast. In the flinty valleys between them lies the long strip called the Hijaz, where nestles Mecca, transfer point for all northbound caravans, and in the sixth century, foremost beneficiary of the new boom. Here Muhammad was born and here too would lie, for centuries to come, the heart place of the faith known as Islam.

The Arabs were Semites, a term used to distinguish the ancient Babylonians, Assyrians, Aramaeans, Chaldeans, Phoenicians, Amorites, Abyssinians, Arabs and Hebrews, all of whom appear to share a common root language. The Arabs, says the historian Hitti, preserve more of the original Semitic features than do the Jews. Biblically, they are viewed as the descendants of Shem, one of the three sons of Noah. Long before Muhammad, the Arabs considered themselves cousins of the Jews. The latter, they said, descended from Abraham via his wife Sarah and their son Isaac, they from Abraham via the handmaid Hagar and their son Ishmael. Hence in the Old Testament, the Arabs appear as Ishmaelites.5

To the Romans, the Arabs were Saraceni and to the Greeks Sarakenoi, possibly derived from the Greek corruption of an Arabic word meaning “east,” hence the English synonym for Arab, “Saracen.” Throughout their history, they moved northward in waves from the peninsula into the fringes of the settled regions of Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia, where they preyed upon the townspeople and farmers, eventually supplanting them to become townspeople and farmers themselves. Here they became bilingual, learning the Aramaic language that from 1200 b.c. on had been the common parlance of farmers and townsmen alike throughout Syria and Mesopotamia. But they retained their Arabic as well, no great difficulty since the two languages are much the same.6

From its desert origins, Arabic emerged as a language rich with subtlety and gradations of meaning. Its lilting cadences made it a superb medium for lyrical verse, and it sounds better recited than spoken. Its ancient poetry was preserved solely by recitation. It revels in war, in the thrill of stalking an unsuspecting enemy, bursting in upon him to steal his livestock, women, and children, and then vanishing without trace into the trackless sands. It relishes alike the insufferable heat of the sun and the tranquil cool beneath the moon. Beyond being a warrior, a great man must also be an orator and a lavishly generous host. Woman, though man’s chattel, is celebrated as his companion and business partner. The poet was more than an entertainer. He was a tribal functionary. His verse must raise the tribe’s spirits and utterly dishearten the enemy. There were single-combat contests between poets, just as between warriors. To the Arab, whether townsman or Bedouin, poetry was a mystical, supernatural thing, a common bond among all Arabs.

The distinction between town-Arab and nomad was not sharp. Some bands lived in the towns during one season, on the desert in another. Many eventually abandoned the desert permanently, retaining, however, their Arab names and genealogy, their family law and customs, and their language. Having settled in the towns, they might become farmers or traders, financing and organizing trans-desert caravans of merchandise. In all these pursuits, their worst problem was those Arabs who remained nomadic. The nomads needed the products of the towns, and acquired them either by raiding and stealing them, or by contract in exchange for “protection”–protection, that is, from yet other desert raiders. The arrangement sometimes reduced the townspeople to virtual bondage to the nomads whom the townspeople sometimes despised as wanton barbarians. To the macho desert people, on the other hand, the townsmen were mere wimps who had rejected manliness, the prized virtue of the nomad.

The only way to stop the incessant raids on the communities along the edges of the desert was to bribe the tribes who were doing it, and to use them instead to fight off others who wanted to do it. Therefore, both of the great ancient empires established protective spheres of influence beyond their frontiers, the Roman embracing the hinterlands of Syria, Palestine and Egypt, the Persian the western borderlands of Mesopotamia, plus Bahrain and Oman down the peninsula’s east coast. Within these, each empire established client kingdoms and tribal federations, bestowing upon their chiefs the imperial authority and (in the case of the Romans) the title phylarch. In exchange for an annual subsidy, the phylarchs, when called upon, reinforced the Roman army with cavalry and camel units.

The Arabs, both within the cities and without, called themselves “the People of the Camel,” and only one other word in their language had more synonyms and derivatives than the thousand that applied to the camel. That was the word for sword. The Bedouin slept by his sword, and often uneasily, for all his kin and property were at the constant risk of a raid by another clan. If he did not lie awake worrying about who might attack him, he lay scheming about whom he himself might attack.

This was razzia, which Hitti describes as the Arabs’ “chronic mental condition.” It was as old, or older, than Bedouin life. The geographer Strabo observed in the first century b.c., “Every Arab is a tradesman and a robber.” The Syrian historian Ammianus Marcellinus compared the Saraceni to birds of prey. “Whenever they have caught sight of any prey from on high, they seize it with a swift swoop and directly make off.” He observes that they are usually leaderless; that they ride their swift horses or slender camels half-nude, clad only to the loins, that no farmer between the Tigris and the Nile was safe from them, and that they are “without homes, without fixed abodes, and without law.”

St. Jerome recalls the chagrin of a monk who told him of a party of men, women, and children on a public highway between Syria and Mesopotamia that crossed through the desert. “Suddenly these Ishmaelites,” said the monk, “riding upon horses and camels, descended upon us in a startling attack, with their long hair flying from under their headbands. They wore cloaks over their half-naked bodies, and broad boots. Quivers hung from their shoulders; their unstrung bows dangled at their sides; they carried long spears. They had come not for battle but for plunder. We were seized, scattered and carried off in different directions.” The monk subsequently escaped. Others would have been sold back to their families, or on the open slave market.

Razzia, however, was more than mere sport. Even the scant rain that the desert expected would often fail, and the dilemma facing the Bedouin was to either steal or starve. They chose the former, and by the sixth century, though few realized it, their lifestyle had made the Arab nomads the most dangerous assault troops in the world.

To both the Romans and Greeks, they were an object of contempt. The Byzantine Romans, who distrusted all tradesmen, especially distrusted Arabs, and very especially Bedouin, whom they regarded as cynical, materialistic, avaricious to the point of addiction, insubordinate, lawless, and particularly treacherous to any who had been fool enough to befriend them. Though they could rarely satiate it, their appetite for food, wine and women was voracious, even gluttonous, as events were soon to prove.

It was untrue, however, that they lacked scruples. Their greatest enemy was nature itself, and a man caught on the desert without water and food could count on their boundless hospitality. The young lad who was expelled by his father for slaughtering the family’s only three camels to feed some starving wayfarers is a hero in Arab poetry. (He was, as it happens, a Christian.) Guarantees of protection were rigidly observed, and the Bedouin’s courage and readiness to die for the honor of the clan was instant.

The role of women in pre-Islamic Arabia is a subject of confusion and dispute. Some early tribes were undoubtedly matrilineal. A woman would spend a few days with her husband if he happened to be camped nearby, but would raise her children in her own family group. Whether she could have more than one husband is not clear, but divorce was easy, and some women over time certainly had several husbands. In the towns, prior to Islam, women led an active business life, some of them financing and organizing caravans just as men did. At the same time, female infanticide also seems to have been practiced, because the Qur’an had to prohibit it specifically. Men certainly had numerous wives, and on the death of the father, the eldest son added all his father’s wives to his own.

Bedouin morality did not arise out of religion. Here the Bedouin has always been a skeptic. He embraced, if it served his purposes, Christianity, then–with some notable exceptions–paid it little real heed. When Islam came, he did the same. Though Allah entered into his poetry, it was always obliquely, referring to what religious people did, rather than enjoining religion upon the hearer.

Even before Muhammad, the Bedouin had words, it is true, that meant “prayer,” and “worship,” and “ascribe glory to,” but their gods mostly derived from nature. And their worship of the sun, moon, trees and stones consisted of appeals for natural benefits and for propitiation against natural disaster. Since surviving each day wholly preoccupied them, they had no time for philosophic speculation. Their ultimate realities were birth, marriage, food, rain, death, goats, sheep and camels. Their poetry contemplated fate, usually as a dismal observation of its injustice.

The Bedouin, however fearsome, were necessary to both the Romans and Persians. For one thing, only they could run the trans-desert caravans. They knew the trails and the watering places, and how to avoid trouble. For another, they could not be controlled. Their homeland, the desert, proved unassailable. Caesar Augustus’s efforts to invade the peninsula with ten thousand men down the Red Sea coast at the time of Christ had proved such a serial calamity of disease, hunger, toil, treachery and death that no one tried it again for more than five hundred years.

This is the end of the Bedouin Life category article drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 30, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam. To continue reading more about Bedouin Life from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at