Story of Mohammed - Edith Holland

Arabia and Its Tribes

If you look at the map of Asia you will find, in the southwest, the largest peninsula in the world. This is Arabia; its shape is an irregular oblong, bounded on the west by the Red Sea, on the south by the Indian Ocean, on the east by the Persian Gulf and the river Euphrates, and on the north by Syria.

Arabia is a very hot and dry country; in some parts it scarcely ever rains, and a great deal of it is desert. Except in the southwest, there are no rivers that flow the whole year round, they rush in torrents from the mountains in springtime, but soon lose themselves in the sand, leaving dry river-beds, which are called wadys. The Arabs are a very ancient people, having possessed their land from the earliest days of which we have any records, and they have never been wholly conquered by any foreign invader.

The Arab nation is divided into tribes; in olden days there was no king or ruler over the whole of Arabia, but each tribe was independent, and governed by its chief. This chief was usually chosen because he was the bravest or the wisest man, and the one best fitted to lead. Some of the tribes lived in towns and villages and had settled occupations, whilst others were Bedouins, or wanderers, and lived in tents, moving their camps from place to place when they wanted fresh pasture for their flocks and herds. In their wanderings they often had to cross wide tracts of desert, and their most useful beast of burden was the camel. No animal is better fitted for travelling in the desert than the camel; he is very hardy and able to go without water for several days together, and his feet, being large and flat, are specially adapted for walking on the soft sand. The camel has been well named the ship of the desert.

Have you any idea what a desert is like? Imagine a land from which all life has disappeared—where there are no hedges, nor trees and flowers; no birds, no insects. The hills are barren, the valleys dry beds of forgotten rivers; there is no sound nor sign of life—a world of nothingness! Think how far away the horizon appears when you stand on the beach, looking out to sea; if you were in the desert this far horizon would be round you on all sides, smoky blue in the dim distance, and you would feel lost in the boundless expanse.

In some parts of the desert there are sand dunes—hillocks and mounds of sand as soft as down cushions, blown by the wind into ridges that are like the waves of the sea. Sometimes the wind blows fiercely across the open waste, and the loose sand rises up like a tall pillar and overspreads the sky, blotting out the sun. Any camels that may be on the march lie down and bury their noses in the sand, and their riders lie beside them, covering up their mouths and noses until the sandstorm has swept by. Can you wonder that the people who live on the borders of the great desert should think of Paradise as a garden with flowing rivers?

The Arabs are the children of the desert, and many of their special qualities can be traced to its influence. What people have a greater love of freedom than the wandering Arabs who roam over these vast solitudes, knowing no limit or boundary, for the desert is free to all? The wiry strength and endurance of the Arab, his quickness of perception, are the outcome of his desert life, for to the wayfarer of the sandy waste "voyaging is victory," and he must use all his resourcefulness, all his powers of endurance, to defeat the dangers that beset him on his way. Perhaps it is these pitiless regions which have inspired the fierce revengefulness of the Arab, for he is slow to forgive an injury, and a blood feud may sometimes last for generations. On the other hand, no people in the world are so famed for their hospitality as these wanderers of the desert. The weary traveller need never appeal in vain for food and shelter; his Arab host will entertain him with the best he has, often killing his last sheep or goat to do honour to his guest. So highly does an Arab regard the duty of hospitality that if a stranger has once broken bread or eaten salt with him he considers him ever afterward entitled to his protection, even though he should turn out to be his worst enemy.

Three men were once having a discussion as to who was the most generous of all the Arabs they knew. Each claimed that distinction for his own particular friend, quoting instances of his wonderful liberality. The discussion became heated, and at length some one suggested that each of the three men should go to his friend, asking for help, and the one who responded most liberally to the appeal would be considered the first among the Arabs for generosity. This was agreed to, and the first man went in search of his friend, Abdallah, whom he found mounted on his camel, and just about to start on a journey. But when Abdallah heard that his friend was travelling and in need of help he immediately dismounted and told him to take the camel and all that was on her; the only thing he asked to have back was a sword he greatly valued, which hung on the saddle. The saddle-bags on the camel were found to contain four thousand pieces of gold and some silk vests, but the most valuable article was the sword.

The second of the two men now went to test the generosity of his friend, whose name was Kais. When he arrived at his house Kais was asleep, and his slave did not like to wake him, but hearing that a friend of his master was in need of help he gave him all the money he could find in the house, amounting to several thousand pieces of gold, and told him to go to the man in charge of the camels and take a camel and a slave. When Kais awoke he commended his servant for what he had done, and, as a reward, gave him his freedom, but said that if he had seen his friend himself he would have given him still more.

It now remained for the third man to try if his friend Arabah could surpass the other two in acts of generosity. Arabah was infirm and nearly blind; he was on his way to prayers, leaning on the arms of two slaves, when he met his friend, who appealed to him for help. "Alas! I have no money," cried Arabah, deeply distressed, "but take these slaves, for they are all I have." His friend refused, but Arabah insisted, and, dismissing his two slaves, he groped his way as best he could along the walls of the houses.

When the three men met to discuss the merits of their friends, all who were present were of the same opinion—that Arabah had proved himself the most generous, for he had given all he possessed.

There were three things on which the ancient Arabs specially prided themselves—eloquence, with a thorough knowledge of their own beautiful language, horsemanship, including the use of arms, and the practice of hospitality. Without these no Arab was considered to be fully educated.

The Arabs have a great love of poetry. In the olden days their only historical records were contained in the verses of their poets. So highly did they value this art that when a new poet arose his tribe was publicly congratulated. A festival was held in his honour, and the women danced and sang to the sound of timbrels. Only two other occasions were considered worthy of public rejoicing that of the birth of a son and of a purebred Arab foal, for the Arabs are very proud of their breed of horses, which are famous all the world over.

At the great fairs, which were held yearly at certain places in Arabia, poetical competitions used to take place. The poets came and recited their verses before all the people, and those which were judged to be the best were written on silk in letters of gold and hung up in the ancient temple of Mecca, where all might see them. It may seem strange to you that this wild and lawless people should have had such a passion for poetry; but the free and wandering life of the desert is more likely to foster the true spirit of poetry than the atmosphere of civilized towns. When guarding his flocks from the wild beasts that infest the borders of the desert, the Arab would often spend his nights under the "stars which are the poetry of heaven"—shining in those clear skies with a brilliancy we have no idea of in our misty northern climes. The cold light of dawn, touching the summits of the grey hills, giving them a grim and haggard look, the mirage shimmering in the noon-day heat, the crimson sunset lighting the rocks with a, radiance like the glow of a fiery furnace—these airings lent wings to the imagination of the lonely watcher, and quickened his insight into the world of mystery and romance. Was not one of the greatest poets of all time an Arab? for the Book of Job contains some of the finest poetry that was ever written.

There is yet another side to the teaching of the desert; in the loneliness of this vast and empty land man realizes his helpless dependence, and his faith in a merciful and compassionate God Who cares for his needs becomes stronger and more vivid. It was in the desert that Abraham, journeying by the guidance of the stars, came to the knowledge of an all-powerful God, far above the vain idols of man's imaginings. Moses, during his long sojourn in the wilderness, never doubted the near presence of a mighty God, a sure help in time of trouble. In later years the Prophet of Arabia, wandering among the barren hills of his native land, saw in the wonders of nature sure signs of the greatness of the Creator, and there came upon him the conviction that "God is One, the Eternal," that "there is none like unto Him." In the desolation of the desert man looks to a Paradise in the unknown land beyond the stars—there will he find a haven of rest, a heavenly city, "gardens 'neath which rivers flow."

The desert is an all-conquering force which man has no power to overcome, and where it seeks to extend its boundaries its advance is irresistible. The sand, lashed by the cutting winds, is for ever driven against the solid rocks; gradually their outline is effaced, until, in the long course of ages, they too crumble away into particles of sand. The work of destruction never ceases. Step by step the desolation advances, spreading over all a veil of sand, like a mantle of forgetfulness.