Review: Arabs. A Three Thousand Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires

Mackintosh-Smith, Tim. Arabs . Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

Tim Mackintosh Smith is one of those romantic Englishmen who used to go and settle in far off lands and “go native”. He lives in Yemen (apparently still there, even during the civil war) and has been writing about the region and the Arab people for several decades. This book is the culmination of a lifetime of study, a comprehensive history of a people and civilization to which he has become attached and about whom he knows more than most. It is well worth reading.

He begins by making it clear that this is a history of the Arabs, not a history of Islam. The first mention of the word Arab actually occurs in “in 853 BC (and) concerns the employment by the Assyrian state of a transport contractor, a certain Gindibu (‘Locust’), an Arab chieftain who owned vast herds of camels”. This is about 3000 years ago, and the coming of Islam lies about halfway through this history. While we know relatively little of the early (pre-Islamic) history of these people, Mackintosh-Smith wants us to be aware that the Arabs existed long before Islam did.

The word “Arab” itself  means “tribal groups who live beyond the reach of settled society”. It was mostly used for the nomadic people of the Arabian peninsula, among whom the high Arabic language evolved. This group and their more settled brethren in Southern Arabia (Yemen) were likely descended from people who migrated into the peninsula from the fertile crescent and with the coming of Islam, they were united into one nation, bound together by religion and by the high Arabic language of the poets and soothsayers, the language that became the language of the Quran. He emphasizes, again and again, that this language, above all else, is what defines an Arab. Yet it is not the everyday language of anyone who is “Arab”. The everyday dialects of Arabic change every few hundred miles (or less), but this “rich, strange, subtle, suavely hypnotic, magically persuasive, maddeningly difficult ‘high’ Arabic language that evolved on the tongues of tribal soothsayers and poets” remains the ideal, the language of literature and poetry, and the language of the Quran, the quintessential “Arabic” book. But the fact that it is not (and never was) the everyday language of any people has consequences for all dreams of unity and is a feature of Arab civilization that outsiders sometimes miss. For Mackintosh-Smith, it is ultimately this language that defines the Arabs, even before the rise of Islam. Not because they speak it everyday (they do not, and never did) but because their prophets and poets spoke it, and it bound them together in one greater civilization, above and beyond the divisions of tribe and local dialect.

The other great theme of the book is the conflict between settled people (hadar) and nomads (Beddu). The trademark of the nomads is the ghazw or raid, and the author says that even though the nomads are almost gone, the tradition of the raid survives in the countless coups and counter-coups of the Arab world. “For much of Arab history, two rationalities have coexisted, those of the ‘settled’ and of the ‘bedouin’, the peoples and the tribes, seemingly in perpetual duality, clashing yet embracing, loving and hating, yin and yang.”

He covers, of course, the rise of Islam, the explosive growth of the Arab empire, its decision to use to Arabic as the language of administration (and the resulting, astoundingly rapid conversion of conquered people from Morocco to Iraq into “Arabs”). He discusses the rise of Arab literature, science and philosophy (as in, all these were written in the Arabic language, in an Arab-dominated empire) and the benefits of their early use of paper (which they learned to make from the Chinese, but developed into a fine art and used very widely long before it made its way to Europe), but he also points out how short this flash of brilliance and expansion was (only 300 years from the coming of Islam to the fall of the Abbasids, from absolute rulers to puppets of their Persian and then Turkic overlords).
But while most histories of the Arabs peter out at this point, he points out that the Arabs (or at least, some Arabs, the ones in Oman and Yemen) enjoyed another long twilight expansion long after the caliphate had slipped out of their hands; after the caliphate had fallen to the Turks and been ravaged by the Mongols, Arab traders maintained and enlarged a new domain around the Indian ocean, converting people from Sri Lanka and India to Malaysia, Indonesia and East Africa to Islam, and creating a second (and less known) expansion of their language, culture and religion.

Finally, he describes the various attempts at mondernization, rennaissance and recovery that occured after the arrival of the modern Europeans in Arab lands (starting with Napoleon in Egypt). Unlike many histories, he does not stop a 100 years ago, but brings the story up to the present (even commenting on the dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi). He does say that the book might have had a more optimistic ending if written ten years ago (before the rise and fall of the Arab spring), but now “Seeing the land I live in and love falling apart is like watching an old and dear friend losing his mind”. 

The book is very well written, flush with delightful anecdotes and clever turns of phrase. It is probably the most comprehensive, up to date and detailed history of the Arabs that is out there and is a must read for anyone interested in the region and the people. The author is clearly in love with his subject, and has a generally sympathetic view of the Arabs, a fact that may upset some Zionist readers (he is blunt in his criticism of Israel), but even for them, it should be a source of insights, information and delightful anecdotes. Highly recommended.

How far Arabic penetrated the languages themselves can be judged from numbers of loan words. In post-Ottoman Turkish in 1931, 51 per cent of newspaper vocabulary was Arabic; even after a generation of de-arabicization, the proportion in 1965 was still 26 per cent. In Farsi, there were attempts to persianize the lexicon in the nineteenth century, but at least 30 per cent of the vocabulary remains Arabic. Arabic travelled via Persian to the Indian subcontinent, where not only Hindi and particularly Urdu but also many of the related languages are rich in Arabic words; thus, for example, a concept as indigenous as Sikh khalsa can turn out to have an Arabic name – khalisah is ‘pure’. India’s recent colonial history also meant that a minor secondary wave of Arabic words made it the long way round to Europe, and particularly with the nabobs (the nawab, Arabic ‘deputies’) to ‘Blighty’ – itself from Arabic wilayah, ‘dominion, realm’, via Persian into Indian bilayati ‘of the foreign land, especially Europe/Britain’. Arabicization is continuing in at least one part of the Indian subcontinent, as Bangladeshi Bengali replaces Sanskrit loan words with new ones of Arabic origin. Further south and east around the ocean arc, Arabic has bequeathed modern Indonesian as many as 3,000 loan words. From the East Indies, it still had further to go – not just to Ibn Battutah’s hazy Kaylukari but also to Elcho Island, off Australia’s Arnhem Land: there, the Aboriginal name for God, ‘Walitha’walitha’, apparently came via early contacts with Makassar Muslims from the Arabic phrase Allahu ta’ala, ‘Allah, exalted is He’. In the opposite direction, in Africa, the belated Arab tribal migrations of the Banu Hilal and others from the eleventh century onwards arabicized the lowlands, but Arabic would also steal into the Berber languages, a quarter to a third of whose vocabulary is now Arabic. From the Maghrib, traders, missionaries and tribesmen also took Arabic itself as far south as Bornu in northern Nigeria, where a form of the language is still spoken by inhabitants of Arab origin. No less importantly, from the sawahil, the coasts of the western arm of the oceanic arc, Swahili spread inland through trade to become the national language of Kenya and Tanzania. Swahili is a Bantu language, but Arabic has loaned it perhaps as much as half of its vocabulary”

an identity that had begun to form before the Christian era, had coalesced under the Lakhmid and Ghassanid kings, had solidified with Islam and reached its firmest form under the Umayyads and earlier Abbasids, but then had weakened and decayed around the time of the death of the last ‘real’ caliph in the mid-tenth century. What had happened since then was that Arab identity had reverted to its herding-raiding beginnings. The idea of ’urubah, arabness, had been almost as mobile and various across time as the peoples and tribes to whom it attached; under the Ottomans, it entered a 300-year dip in the road, and became invisible”

“And there was another irony of empire in these centuries: the high point of Arab unity – in terms of the greatest population under a single rule over the longest time and the widest geographical extent – was achieved under the Ottomans. Arab unity was purchased at the expense of Arab independence, and in many ways also of Arab identity”

“most propaganda is still in high Arabic. And the propaganda has power: the old sacred tongue, the ‘dead language that refuses to die’, as Paul Bowles called it, still bewitches, mystifies and silences the masses as it did in the mouths of pre-Islamic poets and seers. It still has a weight and a volume that mutes the twittering. And it remains the most potent symbol of a long-elusive unity: ‘We do not live in a land, but in a language.’ Do away with that one shared territory, that almost impossibly difficult language, and you do away with the only aspect of unity that is not a mirage”

Whatever the exact figures, they are the reason why, in the United States, a Syrian-Lebanese quarter sprouted in what its inhabitants called ‘Nayy Yark’; why, more recently, Salman Rushdie could find ‘Egyptian’ (in fact Lebanese) shops in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, run by the likes of Armando Mustafa and Manolo Saleh; and why on a visit to Dakar my breakfasts comprised Franco-Levantine pain au chocolat, Turkish coffee and Lebanese ladies with hairdos and Marlboros. They are also the reason why Argentina has had an Arab-origin president (Carlos Menem), Brazil another (Michel Temer), followed, in 2018, by an Arab-orign presidential runner-up (Fernando Haddad), and why Brazil’s Arab-origin citizens now number twelve million, making it the ninth biggest Arab country by population – bigger than Lebanon. They went forth, multiplied and left the old country behind in every way”

“Blame it as they might on other peoples’ empires, Arabs had never been a happy family: not since the division of the spoils of Islam; not since the pre-Islamic War of al-Basus, that forty-year super-squabble over grazing rights. They had never really been a family at all, except in tribal fictions of shared descent. If empires were to blame, it was as much as anything for inspiring, by reflex, the myths and mirages of unattainable union. Imperialists certainly divided and ruled, but more often than not they were driving their wedges into old splits.”

“Today, those individual voices that were raised have been silenced again. Another spring has had no summer; like so many revolutions, Muhammad’s included, it was begun by those who were hungry for justice, but was hijacked by those who were hungry for power. In several cases, notably that of Egypt, it was a double hijacking: first by the self-styled proponents of the ancienne révolution, the islamists – for the straggly beards soon ousted the shaggy heads – and then by the anciens régimes themselves, the insatiable tyrannosaurs. It might be said that Arab history is a series of stolen revolutions”


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Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

13 thoughts on “Review: Arabs. A Three Thousand Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires”

  1. Very intriguing and exotic region. There are couple things that may complement this good review…

    Minean Arabia, the capital was Karana (now Qarn al-Manazil) – Serbian tribes from Crete came during the Mino dynasty.
    Sabeyska (Sabeian) Arabia, south from Minean, (the capital was Saba) – Serbian tribes (names: Seba, Saba, Sabta, Sabteka mentioned in Old Testament: Job 1:13-15, Isaiah 45:14, and Joel 3:4-8 and the Quran Sura 34) came from Lycia in Asia Minor.

    Both, Minean and Sabeian Arabia composed ‘Fortunate Arabia.’
    At its height Saba was one of the greatest kingdoms in antiquity and ruled over a land that, to many, was considered blessed by the gods.

    (The following text by Joshua J. Mark)

    “Saba (also given as Sheba) was a kingdom in southern Arabia (region of modern-day Yemen) which flourished between the 8th century BCE and 275 CE when it was conquered by the neighbouring Himyarites. Although these are the most commonly accepted dates, various scholars have argued for a longer or shorter chronology with the earliest date of c. 1200 BCE; most agree on the terminus of c. 275 CE, however.

    In its prime, however, Saba was known as a wealthy kingdom which grew rich through trade along the Incense Routes (also known as the Spice Routes) between southern Arabia and the port of Gaza on the Mediterranean Sea. Most of the biblical and quranic references – including the tale of the famous queen – reference Saba’s wealth and success in trade.

    The Sabeans supplanted the Mineans in orchestrating trade and quickly became the wealthiest kingdom in southern Arabia. Goods were sent from Saba to Babylon and Uruk in Mesopotamia, to Memphis in Egypt, and to Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre in the Levant and, from the port at Gaza, even further. By the time of the reign of the Assyrian king Sargon II (722-705 BCE), their trade routes required his permission to operate in his realm and extend through Assyrian lands. The Egyptians had been trading with the land of Punt (modern-day Puntland State of Somalia) since their 5th Dynasty (c. 2498-2345 BCE), as well as their southern neighbour Nubia but had since initiated trade with southern Arabia. Gold from Nubia travelled north to the capital of Egypt at Memphis and then overland east and south down to Saba.

  2. cont.
    Sabean kings (known as mukarribs) rose to power and commissioned great building projects from their capital at Ma’rib (modern-day Sana’a, Yemen). The most famous of these projects is the Ma’rib Dam, the oldest known dam in the world, blocking the ravine of Dhana (the Wadi Adanah). The mountainous ravine would flood during the rainy season and the dam was built to control and divert the water to the low-lying farms in the valley.

    Irrigation of the farmlands was so successful that Saba was consistently remarked upon as a “green country” by ancient historians such as Pliny the Elder (c. 23-79 CE) who called the region Arabia Eudaemon (“Fortunate Arabia”), a term later used by the Romans as “Arabia Felix”. The dam, considered one of the greatest engineering feats of the ancient world, was built under the reign of the Sabean mukarrib Yatha’ Amar Watta I (c. 760-740 BCE).

    Prior to the 8th century BCE, trade in the area seems to have been controlled by the Mineans of the kingdom of Ma’in but c. 950 BCE the Sabeans dominated the region and taxed the goods heading north from their southern neighbours of Hadramawt, Qataban, and the port of Qani. Sabean trade suffered during the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt (323-30 BCE) when the Ptolemies encouraged sea routes over land travel, and Saba’s prestige declined until they were conquered by the neighbouring Himyarites.

    In c. 575 CE the Ma’rib dam failed and Saba was flooded. The Quran attributes the flood to an act of God (Surah 34:15-17) as punishment for the Sabeans refusing to accept his gifts. If so, said punishment was severe and resulted in the abandonment of towns and cities as the people were forced to leave the area or starve. A more rational explanation for the dam’s failure is simply its age and lack of maintenance, although secular legends claim it was due to rats weakening the dam’s supports by chewing on them.

  3. Sounds like a must read.

    I have to say that until reading this review I thought that the earliest mention of Arabs was in the inscriptions of darayavahuš I (Latin Darius) wherein he refers to arabāya as one of the subjugated peoples of the Persian Empire around 500 BCE. Later xšhayarša I (Latin Xerxes) also refers to the arabāya as conquered peoples like his dad.

  4. I have read many years back another book by the same author , TMS, I think , of his travels in India in the footsteps of Ibn Bhatuta. That was also a great read. For example he visits a place called Khunin hathi in Delhi were his employer Allauddin Khilji used to execute prisoners by making elephants step over them. Now that place is used by boys for crap. He also locates the same sight – as he claims – from where Bhatuta saw a Sati burning , now a few memory stones in a forest in Madhya Pradesh. he is a riveting writer.

    ( a quick Amazon search has got this book
    Hall of a Thousand Columns: Hindustan to Malabar with Ibn Battutah)

    I would like to read this book also

  5. Mackintosh-Smith’s spread of Arabic culture and language and it’s influence over large parts of Asia, south and south east Asia and Africa is spot on. That is why Arabic is considered a ‘Çlassical language’ on par with Latin or Sanskrit.. Probably even places like Caucasus, Chechniya or Dagestan , there is Arabic influence

    One downside of arabization among south Asians – invariably through Islam – is making cleavages where none existed. In the last 30 years sarees are disappearing among women to make way for headscarf and bodyscarf. Ce la vie, such is history.

    To note another linguistic point. Arabic is highly diglossic i.e. what Arabic people speak is their their local dialect and Arabic with a capital A is the language of old poems and Quran. Similar situation to Tamil – where ‘Sen tamil’ which many Tamils consider to be a matter of pride, is nobody’s mother tongue and which people learn at school through learning old style poetry and the grammar which goes with it.

  6. ” but he also points out how short this flash of brilliance and expansion was (only 300 years from the coming of Islam to the fall of the Abbasids, from absolute rulers to puppets of their Persian and then Turkic overlords).”

    Well in a way, Arabs greatest achievement is to make their ethnicity 2nd largest in the world after Han Chinese. That should amount for something, to have previous proud neighboring civilizations (Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, Maghreb etc) give up on their previous history and adapt a different one.

    Not to mention their invention (and franchising) of a world class product (Islam) which gets them allegiance ( from far away countries in Africa and Asia) to begrudging support even from their ethnic rivals (Turks, Persian). Who would not kill to posses something like that?

    If this is something they could achieve just on the back of 300 years, i would say its a job well done.

    1. Yes, Islam gave Arabs a great self-confidence which launched them on a career of conquest – of course promise of loot and female slaves adds some incentives. . It is all the more remarkable as in the 6th C , Arabs were not on the fringes of great empires and civilizations like Byzantium, Iran, Late Roman North Africa.
      It is interesting point whether Islamization was a necessary condition for Arabization in the conquered regions . Probably even by 10th century , the population of present-day West Asia (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Israel) was predominantly Christian and only by 13th C the populations decisively turned Muslim. Did they turn Arabic before or after conversion?

      1. I think Razib addressed this somewhere, where the language spoken in the greater middle east (Syria, Iraq) was some sort of cousin languages of Arabic. So once the language was assimilated , religion came next. Of course when you go to further areas like Maghreb or further down Africa (from Egypt) the Arabization was tightly coupled with Islamization.

        Its not dissimilar to the subcontinent, apart from that there was a close competitor to Arabization , ie the Perisan variant of the religion.

        1. \So once the language was assimilated\
          True it was the North Semitic languages, descendants of Aramaic. OTOH, same “language group” is no indicator that that they can switch to the other language . Language displacement is no more easier than language group displacement. Pakistan tried to displace one IA language, Bengali with another IA language, Urdu and came to grief.

          1. I think we over exaggerate the whole Bengali language centrality to Bangladesh movement. The movement kept on ebbing and flowing notwithstanding Bengali absence /presence in the 50s and 60s . Bangladesh remained East Pakistan throughout the wars, all the while Bengali was sort of step child to Urdu. The immediate triggers for separation was other events much closer to 74 than language.

            Given enough time languages CAN both assimilate and displace other languages. And especially quicker in the today;s world. Speaking from experience as how quickly has Hindi both displaced and assimilated other N-Indian languages. Its also sort of the 2nd language in frontier regions like Maharashtra, Bengal, Orissa etc.

            Pretty sure had the war not happened you would have seen the rise of Urdu speaking Bengalis competing with Bengali speakers in Bangladesh.That’s what any state (with its immense resources) can do to a language. It can push your language both into oblivion as well into greatness.

    2. “Well in a way, Arabs greatest achievement is to make their ethnicity 2nd largest in the world after Han Chinese.” This is load of crap, you know that their population is 43 crore rite? Do some basic search before you go crapping.

  7. Another couple interesting complementary things related to this topic…

    The Queen of Sheba – Identified as Sheba, Saba is the kingdom of the queen who travels to Jerusalem to experience first-hand the wisdom of King Solomon (c. 965-931 BCE) of Israel. In the biblical tale, she brings him a gift of 120 gold talents (approximately $3,600,000.00) among other gifts (I Kings 10:10). The lavish presents of the queen would be in keeping with the wealth of the Sabean monarchy, which was legendary, but there is no evidence outside of the Bible, and the later works mentioned, that she ever existed.

    The identification of the Queen of Sheba with the Kingdom of Saba has led some to conclude that she was an Ethiopian queen from central Africa since there was a Saba in Africa which seems linguistically, or at least culturally, associated with the kingdom in Arabia. Whether she was or was not cannot be answered, but it is most likely that if such a queen did exist c. 970-931 BCE, she came from the region of southern Arabia which was growing wealthy at that time from the Incense Routes it controlled.

    MT> Having read the previous I remembered that some Ethiopian toponyms were listed at the bottom of the maps which link I provided two days ago in the neighbouring thread.

    For history buffs and researchers there is the maps link again.
    For serious music lovers – Handel: Arrival of the Queen of Sheba


    Handel: Queen of Sheba – 3 min; (toccata and fugue come after)

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