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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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A vast country of Asia, extending one thousand five hundred miles from north to south, and one thousand two hundred from east to west; containing a surface equal to four times that of France. The near approach of the Euphrates to the Mediterranean constitutes it a peninsula, the largest in the world. It is called Jezirat-el-Arab by the Arabs; and by the Persians and Turks, Arebistan. This is one of the most interesting countries on the face of the earth. It has, in agreement with prophecy, never been subdued; and its inhabitants, at once pastoral, commercial, and warlike, are the same wild, wandering people as the immediate descendants of their great ancestor Ishmael are represented to have been.

Arabia, or at least the eastern and northern parts of it, were first peopled by some of the numerous families of Cush, who appear to have extended themselves, or to have given their name as the land of Cush, or Asiatic Ethiopia, to all the country from the Indus on the east, to the borders of Egypt on the west, and from Armenia on the north to Arabia Deserta on the south. By these Cushites, whose first plantations were on both sides of the Euphrates and Gulf of Persia, and who were the first that traversed the desert of Arabia, the earliest commercial communications were established between the east and the west. But of their Arabian territory, and of the occupation dependent on it, they were deprived by the sons of Abraham, Ishmael, and Midian; by whom they were obliterated in this country as a distinct race, either by superiority of numbers after mingling with them, or by obliging them to recede altogether to their more eastern possessions, or over the Gulf of Arabia into Africa. From this time, that is, about five hundred and fifty years after the flood, we read only of Ishmaelites and Midianites as the shepherds and carriers of the deserts; who also appear to have been intermingled, and to have shared both the territory and the traffic, as the traders who bought Joseph are called by both names, and the same are probably referred to by Jeremiah , 25, as "the mingled people that dwell in the desert." But Ishmael maintained the superiority, and succeeded in giving his name to the whole people.

Arabia, it is well known, is divided by geographers into three separate regions, called Arabia Petraea, Arabia Deserta, and Arabia Felix.

The first, or Arabia Petraea, is the northwestern division, and is bounded on the north by Palestine and the Dead Sea, on the east by Arabia Deserta, on the south by Arabia Felix, and on the west by the Heroopolitan branch of the Red Sea and the Isthmus of Suez. The greater part of this division was more exclusively the possession of the Midianites, or land of Midian; where Moses, having fled from Egypt, married the daughter of Jethro, and spent forty years keeping the flocks of his father-in-law: no humiliating occupation in those days, and particularly in Midian, which was a land of shepherds; the whole people having no other way of life than that of rearing and tending their flocks, or in carrying the goods they received from the east and south into Phenicia and Egypt. The word flock, used here, must not convey the idea naturally entertained in our own country of sheep only, but, together with these or goats, horned cattle and camels, the most indispensable of animals to the Midianite. It was a mixed flock of this kind which was the sole care of Moses, during a third part of his long life; in which he must have had abundance of leisure, by night and by day, to reflect on the unhappy condition of his own people, still enduring all the rigours of slavery in Egypt. It was a similar flock also which the daughters of Jethro were watering when first encountered by Moses; a trifling event in itself, but important in the history of the future leader of the Jews; and showing, at the same time, the simple life of the people among whom he was newly come, as well as the scanty supply of water in their country, and the strifes frequently occasioned in obtaining a share of it. Through a considerable part of this region, the Israelites wandered after they had escaped from Egypt; and in it were situated the mountains Horeb and Sinai. Beside the tribes of Midian, which gradually became blended with those of Ishmael, this was the country of the Edomites, the Amalekites, and the Nabathaei, the only tribe of pure Ishmaelites within its precincts. But all those families have long since been confounded under the general name of Arabs. The greater part of this district consists of naked rocks and sandy and flinty plains; but it contained also some fertile spots, particularly in the peninsula of Mount Sinai, and through the long range of Mount Seir.

The second region, or Arabia Deserta, is bounded on the north and north- east by the Euphrates, on the east by a ridge of mountains which separates it from Chaldea, on the south by Arabia Felix, and on the west by Syria, Judea, and Arabia Petraea. This was more particularly the country first of the Cushites, and afterward of the Ishmaelites; as it is still of their descendants, the modern Bedouins, who maintain the same predatory and wandering habits. It consists almost entirely of one vast and lonesome wilderness, a boundless level of sand, whose dry and burning surface denies existence to all but the Arab and his camel. Yet, widely scattered over this dreary waste, some spots of comparative fertility are to be found, where, spread around a feeble spring of brackish water, a stunted verdure, or a few palm trees, fix the principal settlement of a tribe, and afford stages of refreshment in these otherwise impassable deserts. Here, with a few dates, the milk of his faithful camel, and perhaps a little corn, brought by painful journeys from distant regions, or plundered from a passing caravan, the Arab supports a hard existence, until the failure of his resources impels him to seek another

oasis, or the scanty herbage furnished on a patch of soil by transient rains; or else, which is frequently the case, to resort, by more distant migration, to the banks of the Euphrates; or, by hostile inroads on the neighbouring countries, to supply those wants which the recesses of the desert have denied. The numbers leading this wandering and precarious mode of life are incredible. From these deserts Zerah drew his army of a million of men; and the same deserts, fifteen hundred years after, poured forth the countless swarms, which, under Mohammed and his successors, devastated half of the then known world.

The third region, or Arabia Felix, so denominated from the happier condition of its soil and climate, occupies the southern part of the Arabian peninsula. It is bounded on the north by the two other divisions of the country; on the south and south-east by the Indian Ocean; on the east by part of the same ocean and the Persian Gulf; and on the west by the Red Sea. This division is subdivided into the kingdoms or provinces of Yemen, at the southern extremity of the peninsula; Hejaz, on the north of the former, and toward the Red Sea; Nejed, in the central region; and Hadramant and Oman, on the shores of the Indian Ocean. The four latter subdivisions partake of much of the character of the other greater divisions of the country, though of a more varied surface, and with a larger portion capable of cultivation. But Yemen seems to belong to another country and climate. It is very mountainous, is well watered with rains and springs, and is blessed with an abundant produce in corn and fruits, and especially in coffee, of which vast quantities are exported. In this division were the ancient citrus of Nysa, Musa or Moosa, and Aden. This is also supposed to have been the country of the queen of Sheba. In Hejaz are the celebrated cities of Mecca and Medina.

Arabia Felix is inhabited by a people who claim Joktan for their father, and so trace their descent direct from Shem, instead of Abraham and Ham. They are indeed a totally different people from those inhabiting the other quarters, and pride themselves on being the only pure and unmixed Arabs. Instead of being shepherds and robbers, they are fixed in towns and cities; and live by agriculture and commerce, chiefly maritime. Here were the people who were found by the Greeks of Egypt enjoying an entire monopoly of the trade with the east, and possessing, a high degree, of wealth, and consequent refinement. It was here, in the ports of Sabaea, that the spices, muslins, and precious stones of India, were for many ages obtained by the Greek traders of Egypt, before they had acquired skill or courage sufficient to pass the straits of the Red Sea; which were long considered by the nations of Europe to be the produce of Arabia itself. These articles, before the invention of shipping, or the establishment of a maritime intercourse, were conveyed across the deserts by the Cushite, Ishmaelite, and Midianite carriers. It was the produce partly of India, and partly of Arabia, which the travelling merchants, to whom Joseph was sold, were carrying into Egypt. The balm and myrrh were probably Arabian, as they are still the produce of the same country; but the spicery was undoubtedly brought farther from the east. These circumstances are adverted to, to show how extensive was the communication, in which the Arabians formed the principal link: and that in the earliest ages of which we have any account, in those of Joseph, of Moses, of Isaiah, and of Ezekiel, "the mingled people" inhabiting the vast Arabian deserts, the Cushites, Ishmaelites, and Midianites, were the chief agents in that commercial intercourse which has, from the most remote period of antiquity, subsisted between the extreme east and west. And although the current of trade is now turned, caravans of merchants, the descendants of these people, may still be found traversing the same deserts, conveying the same articles, and in the same manner as described by Moses!

The singular and important fact that Arabia has never been conquered, has already been cursorily adverted to. But Mr. Gibbon, unwilling to pass by an opportunity of cavilling at revelation, says, "The perpetual independence of the Arabs has been the theme of praise among strangers and natives; and the arts of controversy transform this singular event into a prophecy and a miracle in favour of the posterity of Ishmael. Some exceptions, that can neither be dissembled nor eluded, render this mode of reasoning as indiscreet as it is superfluous. The kingdom of Yemen has been successively subdued by the Abyssinians, the Persians, the Sultans of Egypt, and the Turks; the holy cities of Mecca and Medina have repeatedly bowed under a Scythian tyrant; and the Roman province of Arabia embraced the peculiar wilderness in which Ishmael and his sons must have pitched their tents in the face of their brethren." But this learned writer has, with a peculiar infelicity, annulled his own argument; and we have only to follow on the above passage, to obtain a complete refutation of the unworthy position with which it begins: "Yet these exceptions," says Mr. Gibbon, "are temporary or local; the body of the nation has escaped the yoke of the most powerful monarchies: the arms of Sesostris and Cyrus, of Pompey, and Trajan, could never achieve the conquest of Arabia; the present sovereign of the Turks may exercise a shadow of jurisdiction, but his pride is reduced to solicit the friendship of a people whom it is dangerous to provoke, and fruitless to attack. The obvious causes of their freedom are inscribed on the character and country of the Arabs. Many ages before Mohammed, their intrepid valour had been severely felt by their neighbours; in offensive and defensive war. The patient and active virtues of a soldier are insensibly nursed in the habits and discipline of a pastoral life. The care of the sheep and camels is abandoned to the women of the tribe; but the martial youth, under the banner of the emir, is ever on horseback and in the field, to practise the exercise of the bow, the javelin, and the scimitar. The long memory of their independence is the firmest pledge of its perpetuity; and succeeding generations are animated to prove their descent, and to maintain their inheritance. Their domestic feuds are suspended on the approach of a common enemy; and in their last hostilities against the Turks, the caravan of Mecca was attacked and pillaged by four score thousand of the confederates. When they advance to battle, the hope of victory is in the front, in the rear the assurance of a retreat. Their horses and camels, who in eight or ten days can perform a march of four or five hundred miles, disappear before the conqueror; the secret waters of the desert elude his search; and his victorious troops are consumed with thirst, hunger, and fatigue, in the pursuit of an invisible foe, who scorns his efforts, and safely reposes in the heart of the burning solitude. The arms and deserts of the Bedouins are not only the safeguards of their own freedom, but the barriers also of the happy Arabia, whose inhabitants, remote from war, are enervated by the luxury of the soil and climate. The legions of Augustus melted away in disease and lassitude; and it is only by a naval power that the reduction of Yemen has been successfully attempted. When Mohammed erected his holy standard, that kingdom was a province of the Persian empire; yet seven princes of the Homerites still reigned in the mountains; and the vicegerent of Chosroes was tempted to forget his distant country and his unfortunate master."

Yemen was the only Arabian province which had the appearance of submitting to a foreign yoke; but even here, as Mr. Gibbon himself acknowledges, seven of the native princes remained unsubdued: and even admitting its subjugation to have been complete, the perpetual independence of the Ishmaelites remains unimpeached. For this is not their country. Petra, the capital of the Stony Arabia, and the principal settlement of the Nabathaei, it is true, was long in the hands of the Persians and Romans; but this never made them masters of the country. Hovering troops of Arabs confined the intruders within their walls, and cut off their supplies; and the possession of this fortress gave as little reason to the Romans to exult as the conquerors of Arabia Petraea, as that of Gibraltar does to us to boast of the conquest of Spain.

The Arabian tribes were confounded by the Greeks and Romans under the indiscriminate appellation of Saracens; a name whose etymology has been variously, but never satisfactorily, explained. This was their general name when Mohammed appeared in the beginning of the seventh century. Their religion at this time was Sabianism, or the worship of the sun, moon, &c; variously transformed by the different tribes, and intermingled with some Jewish and Christian maxims and traditions. The tribes themselves were generally at variance, from some hereditary and implacable animosities; and their only warfare consisted in desultory skirmishes arising out of these feuds, and in their predatory excursions, where superiority of numbers rendered courage of less value than activity and vigilance. Yet of such materials Mohammed constructed a mighty empire; converted the relapsed Ishmaelites into good Musselmen; united the jarring tribes under one banner; supplied what was wanting in personal courage by the ardour of religious zeal; and out of a banditti, little known and little feared beyond their own deserts, raised an armed multitude, which proved the scourge of the world.

Mohammed was born in the year 569, of the noble tribe of the Koreish, and descended, according to eastern historians, in a direct line from Ishmael.

His person is represented as beautiful, his manners engaging, and his eloquence powerful; but he was illiterate, like the rest of his countrymen, and indebted to a Jewish or Christian scribe for penning his Koran. Whatever the views of Mohammed might have been in the earlier part of his life, it was not till the fortieth year of his age that he avowed his mission as the Apostle of God: when so little credit did he gain for his pretensions, that in the first three years he could only number fourteen converts; and even at the end of ten years his labours and his friends were alike confined within the walls of Mecca, when the designs of his enemies compelled him to fly to Medina, where he was favourably received by a party of the most considerable inhabitants, who had recently imbibed his doctrines at Mecca. This flight, or Hegira, was made the Mohammedan aera, from which time is computed, and corresponds with the 16th of July, 622, of the Christian aera. Mohammed now found himself sufficiently powerful to throw aside all reserve; declared that he was commanded to compel unbelievers by the sword to receive the faith of one God, and his prophet Mohammed; and confirming his credulous followers by the threats of eternal pain on the one hand, and the allurements of a sensual paradise on the other, he had, before his death, which happened in the year 632, gained over the whole of Arabia to his imposture. His death threw a temporary gloom over his cause, and the disunion of his followers threatened its extinction. Any other empire placed in the same circumstances would have crumbled to pieces; but the Arabs felt their power; they revered their founder as the chosen prophet of God; and their ardent temperament, animated by a religious enthusiasm, gave an earnest of future success, and encouraged the zeal or the ambition of their leaders. The succession, after some bloodshed, was settled, and unnumbered hordes of barbarians were ready to carry into execution the sanguinary dictates of their prophet; and, with "the Koran, tribute, or death," as their motto to invade the countries of the infidels. During the whole of the succeeding century, their rapid career was unchecked; the disciplined armies of the Greeks and Romans were unable to stand against them; the Christian churches of Asia and Africa were annihilated; and from India to the Atlantic, through Persia, Arabia, Syria, Palestine, Asia Minor, Egypt, with the whole of northern Africa, Spain, and part of France, the impostor was acknowledged. Constantinople was besieged; Rome itself was plundered; and nothing less than the subjection of the whole Christian world was meditated on the one hand, and tremblingly expected on the other.

All this was wonderful; but the avenging justice of an incensed Deity, and the sure word of prophecy, relieve our astonishment. It was to punish an apostate race, that the Saracen locusts were let loose upon the earth; and the countries which they were permitted to ravage were those in which the pure light of revelation had been most abused. The eastern church was sunk in gross idolatry; vice, and wickedness prevailed in their worst forms; and those who still called themselves Christians trusted more to images, relics, altars, austerities, and pilgrimages, than to a crucified Saviour.

About a hundred and eighty years from the foundation of Bagdad, during which period the power of the Saracens had gradually declined, a dreadful reaction took place in the conquered countries. The Persians on the east, and the Greeks on the west, were simultaneously roused from their long thraldom, and, assisted by the Turks, who, issuing from the plains of Tartary, now for the first time made their appearance in the east, extinguished the power of the caliphate, and virtually put an end to the Arabian monarchy in the year 936. A succession of nominal caliphs continued to the year 1258: but the provinces were lost; their power was confined to the walls of their capital; and they were in real subjection to the Turks and the Persians until the above year, when Mostacem, the last of the Abbassides, was dethroned and murdered by Holagou, or Hulaku, the Tartar, the grandson of Zingis. This event, although it terminated the foreign dominion of the Arabians, left their native independence untouched. They were no longer, indeed, the masters of the finest parts of the three great divisions of the ancient world: their work was finished; and returning to the state in which Mohammed found them three centuries before, with the exception of the change in their religion, they remained, and still remain, the unconquered rovers of the desert.

It is not the least singular circumstance in the history of this extraordinary people, that those who, in the enthusiasm of their first successes, were the sworn foes of literature, should become for several ages its exclusive patrons. Almansor, the founder of Bagdad, has the merit of first exciting this spirit, which was encouraged in a still greater degree by his grandson Almamon. This caliph employed his agents in Armenia, Syria, Egypt, and at Constantinople, in collecting the most celebrated works on Grecian science, and had them translated into the Arabic language. Philosophy, astronomy, geometry, and medicine, were thus introduced and taught; public schools were established; and learning, which had altogether fled from Europe, found an asylum on the banks of the Tigris. Nor was this spirit confined to the capital: native works began to appear; and by the hands of copyists were multiplied out of number, for the information of the studious, or the pride of the wealthy. The rage for literature extended to Egypt and to Spain. In the former country, the Fatimites collected a library of a hundred thousand manuscripts, beautifully transcribed, and very elegantly bound; and in the latter, the Ommiades formed another of six hundred thousand volumes; forty-four of which were employed in the catalogue. Their capital, Cordova, with the towns of Malaga, Almeria, and Murcia, produced three hundred writers; and seventy public libraries were established in the cities of Andalusia. What a change since the days of Omar, when the splendid library of the Ptolemies was wantonly destroyed by the same people! A retribution, though a slight one, was thus made for their former devastations; and many Grecian works, lost in the original, have been recovered in their Arabic dress. Neither was this learning confined to mere parade, though much of it must undoubtedly have been so. Their proficiency in astronomy and geometry is attested by their astronomical tables, and by the accuracy with which, in the plain of Chaldea, a degree of the great circle of the earth was measured. But it was in medicine that, in this dark age, the Arabians shone most: the works of Hippocrates and Galen had been translated and commented on; their physicians were sought after by the princes of Asia and Europe; and the names of Rhazis, Albucasis, and Avicenna are still revered by the members of the healing art. So little, indeed, did the physicians of Europe in that age know of the history of their own science, that they were astonished, on the revival of learning, to find in the ancient Greek authors those systems for which they thought themselves indebted to the Arabians!

The last remnant of Arabian science was found in Spain; from whence it was expelled in the beginning of the seventeenth century, by the intemperate bigots of that country, who have never had any thing of their own with which to supply its place. The Arabians are the only people who have preserved their descent, their independence, their language, and their manners and customs, from the earliest ages to the present times; and it is among them that we are to look for examples of patriarchal life and manners. A very lively sketch of this mode of life is given by Sir R. K. Porter, in the person and tribe of an Arab sheik, whom he encountered in the neighbourhood of the Euphrates. "I had met this warrior," says Sir R. K. P., "at the house of the British resident at Bagdad; and came, according to his repeated wish, to see him in a place more consonant with his habits, the tented field; and, as he expressed it, ‘at the head of his children.' As soon as we arrived in sight of his camp, we were met by crowds of its inhabitants, who, with a wild and hurrying delight, led us toward the tent of their chief. The venerable old man came forth to the door, attended by his subjects of all sizes and descriptions, and greeted us with a countenance beaming kindness, while his words, which our interpreter explained, were demonstrative of patriarchal welcome. One of my Hindoo troopers spoke Arabic, hence the substance of our succeeding discourse was not lost on each other. Having entered, I sat down by my host; and the whole of the persons present, to far beyond the boundaries of the tent, (the sides of which were open,) seated themselves also, without any regard to those more civilized ceremonies of subjection, the crouching of slaves, or the standing of vassalage. These persons, in rows beyond rows, appeared just as he had described, the offspring of his house, the descendants of his fathers, from age to age; and like brethren, whether holding the highest or the lowest rank, they seemed to gather round their common parent. But perhaps their sense of perfect equality in the mind of their chief could not be more forcibly shown, than in the share they took in the objects which appeared to interest his feelings; and as I looked from the elders or leaders of the people, seated immediately around him, to the circles beyond circles of brilliant faces, bending eagerly toward him and his guest, (all, from the most respectably clad to those with hardly a garment covering their active limbs, earnest to evince some attention to the stranger he bade welcome,) I thought I had never before seen so complete an assemblage of fine and animated countenances, both old and young: nor could I suppose a better specimen of the still existing state of the true Arab; nor a more lively picture of the scene which must have presented itself, ages ago, in the fields of Haran, when Terah sat in his tent door, surrounded by his sons, and his sons' sons, and the people born in his house. The venerable Arabian sheik was also seated on the ground with a piece of carpet spread under him; and, like his ancient Chaldean ancestor, turned to the one side and the other, graciously answering or questioning the groups around him, with an interest in them all which clearly showed the abiding simplicity of his government, and their obedience. On the smallest computation, such must have been the manners of these people for more than three thousand years; thus, in all things, verifying the prediction given of Ishmael at his birth, that he, in his posterity, should ‘be a wild man,' and always continue to be so, though ‘he shall dwell for ever in the presence of his brethren.' And that an acute and active people, surrounded for ages by polished and luxurious nations, should from their earliest to their latest times, be still found a wild people, dwelling in the presence of all their brethren, (as we may call these nations,) unsubdued and unchangeable, is, indeed, a standing miracle: one of those mysterious facts which establish the truth of prophecy." But although the manners of the Arabians have remained unaltered through so many ages, and will probably so continue, their religion, as we have seen, has sustained an important change; and must again, in the fulness of time, give place to a faith more worthy of the people.

St. Paul first preached the Gospel in Arabia, Galatians 1:17 . Christian churches were subsequently founded, and many of their tribes embraced Christianity prior to the fifth century; most of which appear to have been tinctured with the Nestorian heresy. At this time, however, it does not appear that the Arabians had any version of the Scriptures in their own language, to which some writers attribute the ease with which they were drawn into the Mohammedan delusion; while the "Greeks, Syrians, Armenians, Abyssinians, Copts, and others," who enjoyed that privilege, were able to resist it.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Arabia'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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