Arab-American Affairs magazine, VOL 32 Issue No. 211, June-July 2004
A library in Baghdad, Iraq, in the 13th century.
Illustarated by al-Wasisti, 1237 AD
The Three Phases of Arab History;
Excerpt from ‘History of Arab Thought’
by Dr. Wajih I. Saadeh
An Arab American Scholar
The following three phases are the foundation for social and diplomatic Arab History, and the nucleus of Arab expansion, thought and culture.
1- The phase of Ignorance and
High Literature. (750 B.C.-634 A.D.)
The three phases of Arab history made a coherent philosophy and a literary continuity for Arab learning and culture, beginning with the first phase of the Age of Ignorance and High Literature. That was the age of tribal Arab nationalism when that national spirit was based on the sacred foundation of the tribe, on its origin and kinship, and on its honor and dignity. The tribes fought each other for these same reasons and objectives, and the poets and men of literature then wrote in defense of these same sacred reasons and objectives. Many tribal knights and warriors died in defense of their tribes, and many tribal States or Kingdoms grew and developed in South Arabia and succeeded each other in the struggle for supremacy, and all flourished on agriculture and trade in the region of northern Arab Tribes on the Peninsula's Red Sea coast all the way to the Mediterranean shores.
The tribal kingdoms of those Arabs reminds us of the ancient city States of Greece and of those medieval City States in Italy. In each of those locations these States or Kingdoms were centers of culture, trade and international commerce. They were organized and independent governments; there met men of literature who produced unmatched literary products, and they had armies to defend them and their seat of government. These tribal States fought each other for whatever cause there was. Their knights fought on Arabian horses and using the Yamani swords. These tribes also gathered annually for a literature competition in Souk Okath to compete with each other for the finest orations or poems by men of literature represented in the Seven Odes which were and still are of the highest Arab literary production and which compelled me to give it the name ‘The age of Ignorance and High Literature.’
It was called the Age of Ignorance because the People were paganistic and worshiped many idols. I am adding ‘High Literature’ because of the high literary production ever produced in that space of time, and on the belief that authors of all kinds of literary production misinterpreted and mistreated that age. This phase of Arab history began after the fall of the last civilization of our kinsmen, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Chaldians, the Phoenicians and Cananites, to whom we are indebted and stand as representatives, and we connect this to Christianity and the rise of the two Christian Arab Kingdoms, the Ghassanids and Montherits.
2- The Phase of Christianity and
The Monarchy (First Century A.D. to 650 A.D.)
This second phase of Arab history survived as Christian Arab monarchies in both Syria and Iraq for approximately six centuries. Those were Christians in religion and Arabs in conviction, and were neighbors to the Christians of Rome and Byzantine. Their conviction was separated from their religion of Christianity in running and administering the affairs of their states, for Christianity was already spread and already settled by then. Their relation with Arab tribes of the Peninsula were based on good kinsfolk relation and with mutual understanding. The Arab tribes had political and military respect and awareness for these two monarchies, the Ghassanids in Syria, the Montherits in Iraq.
Their spirit of nationalism was Arabic in its forms and functions, it was represented in the person of the king in both kingdoms. It was an upstage in the science of politics and a fine grade of monarchy and one of the finest advancements in the history of the Arabs. It was an age of enlightenment and of justice. It was a time of growth and development in all fields of study. Schools were opened and great teachers and philosophers lectured on students of boys and girls who came to study in their separate schools. The royal courts were opened for poets from inside and outside the kingdoms, and most of all from the Arab tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. And religiously those Christian Arabs belonged to the Syrian Church, to either the Jacobites or Nestorians, and those tried to Christianize the Arabs and had already missionary posts spread all over the region.
These two Arab Kingdoms were secular in their make-up and behavior, and this secularity of the state in both kingdoms was organized properly and administrated well. On this secularity, they based their relations with their southern Arab neighbors, and as well with the Roman, Byzantine and Persian Empires. From these Empires they acquired the administration of the state, the government set-up and function, the system of education and became part of these civilizations of these same Empires, but remained Arab in soul and spirit, and preserved the ideals of Arab nationalism and Arab culture and their influence endured throughout the Ummayyad Empire.
Those Christian Arabs of Ghassanids and Montherits were brothers and came from the largest Arab tribe of Qahtan, they relate to the Arab tribes of Aws and Kazraj. Also they and the Christians of the ancient Semites were parents of those translators, men of medicine and sciences, and of the learned in all fields of study, meaning, the great scholars to whom Muawiyah Ibn Abu Suffian, builder of the Arab Umayyad Empire, entrusted the administration of the state and enrichment of its culture and learning process. On the shoulder of those Christians, Muawiyah, this king and caliph and his successors, built the foundation of the Arab Golden Age which reached its zenith in the days of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Ma'moun.
All of those ancient Semites who built great Empires converted to Christianity, and too, from their kin, the Arabs converted to Islam and earlier a very few converted to Judaism. This phase ended politically when the Arabs defeated the three existing empires of Rome, Byzantine and Persia. Literally the impact of this phase extended throughout the Arab Empire, and it is felt at present in the transformation of Arab nationalism and modern Arab literature and philosophy.
3- The phase of Islam and the Caliphate (632-1798)
The advent of Islam in Arabia unified and strengthened the Arabs. They joined under one Arab Caliph and all under the banner of tribal traits, Arab nationalism and the spirituality of the new religion of Islam. Thus the Arab Muslim armies advanced to both Syria and Iraq and defeated the Byzantines and Persians, and brought to an end the two Christian Arab Kingdoms of the Ghassanid and Montherits. Meanwhile, and in this ‘Phase of Islam and the Caliphate’, nationalism was based on Islam, it was religious nationalism and tribal too, and this only time was combined with Arab nationalism and Arab convictions, and for that genuine combination and reason proved to be working well and very advantageous to the new Arab conquerors.
Nevertheless, beginning with the Umayyad Caliph Muawiyah, the spirit of Arab nationalism became strongly entrenched in the whole system of this greatest period of Arab history and Arab glory. Muawiyah was a real Arab Caliph and the Ummayads built a vast Arab Empire and Arab national spirit grew and developed proportionately and Arab nationalism was motto and banner of this united happy Empire. But history has its own mysteries and unpredictable events which may lead to different and opposite directions and to new growth and developments. Now with the Umayyads being Arabs and the spirit of their nationalism being Arab too, the Abbasids had no national ground to build on their power, they looked, therefore, for and used the religious issue solely as their nationalism in building their caliphate and thus acquiring power by appealing to Muslims of non-Arab origin.
The Abbasid replaced the Arab Ummayad Caliphate in 750 A.D. when they slaughtered the Ummayads near Jaffa in Palestine. Religious nationalism took course in Christian Europe in medieval times and as far as the seventeenth century, and took national and international forms throughout these centuries of religious wars and persecutions. The Abbasids used religious nationalism to come to power through the same nationalism which caused their coming to power, meaning as the foreign Muslims who were not Arabs had helped them earlier to build their Abbasid Caliphate. Those destroyed and divided the caliphate, too was destroyed the nucleus of the Arab nation, its spirit of Arab nationalism and its advanced learning process and high culture. The Arab people were intoxicated and their land was flatly opened to the many savage conquerors who humiliated the Arab personality and destroyed Arab civilization, for they were non-Arabs and used the governing system to suit their interests and that was all they worked for. The spirit of Arab nationalism was put to death, the boundaries of the Empire were dislocated and were unprotected from all invaders of all sorts of people. They were Persians, Mongols and their tribes of Seljuk Turks, the Kurdish, the Crusaders, and thereafter the Ottoman Turks who also were from the Mongol race, and who ruled and oppressed the Arab people of other races used to rule the Arab people, destroying their identity and their national entity and convictions and subduing them for hundreds of years leaving Arab minds asleep and unconscious from an intolerable anaesthetic inhalation which reversed the Arab forward march.
But years later and encouraged by the weakness of Turkey, the European nations began dividing its domain and destiny, and the spirit of Arab nationalism began to revive. It was only in 1798 when another mystery of history brought with it the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt and Syria carrying in its folds the seeds of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity of the French Revolution of 1798, and the teaching of Rousseau, Voltaire and Montesquieu, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and later but not last the Napoleonic Code of Laws. All of these principles of the expedition grew and developed in both Egypt and Syria, and developed too the spirit of Arab nationalism represented in the person of King Hussain I, King of the Arabs and the champion of the the Great Arab Revolution. This growth of Arab nationalism began gradually shaking Turkish rule in the area, and by the end of the first World War Britain and France replaced Turkey and thereafter British mandated policy in Palestine created the chronic Arab - Israeli conflict at a time when most of the Arab states were free and independent, and Arab nationalism began and still is coping with internal and international problems due to foreign challenges and conspiracies, for these external powers fear Arab unity and solidarity as an outcome and as a fact. Therefore these challenges and conspiracies may continue taking different profiles and dress to suit the time and space, and simultaneously Arab nationalism may define and refine itself to suit time and space and remains fully alert in the course of events. Modern Arab movements and parties represent this fact. And before ending, we should also remember that the expedition of Napoleon to Egypt and Syria in 1789, and its cultural and legal impact revived the spirit of Arab nationalism based on Arab convictions and Arab historical background and heritage, and consequently the Arabs began the search and formulation of the Arab personality and its historical national identity.
Interpretation of the contents of these three phrases will always extend through Arab history and will always revolve around it, but the spirit of Arab nationalism will always be the victorious and the only dominant factor in Arab societies all the way. Culturally, the second phase remained the basic ground for Arab learning throughout the centuries, for it was rich in all human endeavors and fields of study and appealing to Arab mind and spirit. The Arab of the third phase entrusted its scheme and programs, and remained faithful to them. However, from then until now and perhaps for tomorrow, the Arab world may remain divided as it is for sometime to come. But it is my sincere hope to see a positive Arab approach towards cooperation and unity upcoming, so that Arabs build again as a highly cultural theatre for the benefit of Humanity and peace in the world.
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