Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Origin and Identity of the arabs - Part 6

Unification and transformation

A great amount of historic documents concerning early Arabs have been destroyed in Islamic times in order to annihilate the memory of the original background from which Islam emerged and how did it change the cultural features of the Arabs -- so, it is not a surprising factor that they did likewise with the peoples that they subdued. Only strongly established cultures resisted and were not "arabized" (like Jews, Assyrians, Coptic Egyptians, Armenians, that never surrendered to Islam). Yet, we still have enough elements to reconstruct the facts concerning the pre-Islamic Arabian culture, and it is interesting that it was a female-centred and even a female-ruled society. This characteristic regarded primarily the Central Arabian and also the Northern tribes, not properly the Southern Arabian culture. Therefore, in order to enable a better comprehensibility, in this chapter we will define with the term Arabian or Arab the peoples of the Northern and Central regions, and "Yemenite" those of the Southern kingdoms (the term Yemenite indeed indicates the right hand, meaning the south).

According to the Chronicles of King Ashurbanipal and preceding Assyrian records, the Arabians have been ruled mainly by queens since the dim and distant past, like their Kushite brothers in Africa. Notable Arabian sovereigns like Zabibi and her daughter/successor Shamsi not only were the queens but also the warrior leaders of their own armies which included a large number of women-fighters; even tough they were submitted by Assyrian kings as vassals, these queens were credited for their aptitude for leadership. Subsequently, the King Assarhadon appointed an Assyrian princess over the Arabs according to their custom of having female rulers. It is indeed a very strange tradition for an allegedly Semitic people, but a typical feature among Kushites: on the African side of the Red Sea, kingdoms like Meroë and Ethiopia were traditionally ruled by queens. Also the Amazigh people under their warrior queen Kahena opposed a fierce resistance to the muslim invaders. Undoubtedly, the government system of pre-Islamic Arabians was not Semitic but Hamitic.

There are conclusive evidences that Arabians had a matrilineal succession, the husband entered the wife's clan and lived in her home, and it was generally the woman who decided to divorce. Women were free to choose their partner, and often married younger men. It was also usual that clans had female names, and there are some hints that suggest that even polyandry was practised -- a custom not found among Semites but within some peoples in India and other regions of Asia. Also their religion had the same character, as the worship of the goddesses, the "daughters of Allah" (name of a pre-Islamic moon-god) prevailed over that of the male idols. It is not the purpose of this essay to show the true origin of Islam, yet it is interesting how did it manage to reverse all the Arabians' culture -- it is not the sole event of this kind in history, just consider how Communism took the power over the deeply religious Russians, overturning many of their traditional values. The Islamic doctrines altered the genuine Kushitic nature of the Arabs and imposed the male tyranny, that includes women-beating and other aberrant humiliations like clitoridectomy -- characters that do not help to qualify Islam as Semitic either. The Islamic insistence on the rules that women must obey has not any ethnic connotation but is the result of a reaction against the freedom and power that Arabian women enjoyed when this religion was founded (by someone who experimented such a female "domination" in his own family). In fact, the Kushite cultural heritage lasted much longer in Central Arabia, the cradle of Islam, rather than in the Northern and Southern regions, where the Nabatean and Himyarite civilizations were in contact with the western world and had become quite cosmopolitan.

The Nabateans learnt literature, sciences and arts from their neighbours and were Hellenized up to a certain degree; most of them also converted to Judaism and Christianity. It was in Roman times that they reached their splendour and expanded their influence over Central Arabia; cities like Khaybar, Yathrib and Mekka became important Nabatean centres. Most of the Jews dwelling in Arabia in those times were indeed converted Nabateans, as well as the Christians that settled as south as Najran, in the Yemenite region. Paradoxically, a large number of true Ishmaelites were murdered by the Islamic hordes in the massacres of Jews at Khaybar and Medina. The notions about Jewish and Christian traditions were actually the source from which Nabateans rediscovered their Ishmaelite origin, as the name of Ishmael was completely lost in their own tradition. The Arabic form of this name shows internal evidence that it was translated from Greek or perhaps Syriac. This remote connection with a Biblical figure was enhanced on purpose by the promoters of Islam in order to create themselves a prestigious ancestry, although without having actual proofs of the Ishmaelite descent of Nabateans.

As we have already said, the Arabians were primarily a Kushite people and that is what they were considered by their Semitic neighbours as well; Ishmael's offspring developed as a Hamitic people for many generations. In fact, the only ancestor they remembered was Adnan, whose origin is unknown and maybe legendary, or perhaps a Kushite to whom in Islamic times was ascribed Ishmaelite lineage. It was mainly in Roman times that the Nabateans absorbed some Semitic tribes (Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites and Aramean clans from Syria), that contributed to add an important Semitic element to their ethnicity, nevertheless, none of these Semites was originated from Ishmael!

Concerning the Yemenites, in early times they had been ruled by queens according to the Kushitic tradition. The Semitic Yoqtanites assimilated the original Hamitic tribes and adopted their female monarchy system. Since they did not leave any written account of their own history previous to the Assyrian period, the only available document regarding the Sabean monarchy before the 8th century b.c.e. is recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures, that reports the journey of the Queen of Sheva to Jerusalem. The description of the Queen illustrates the daring character of a typical Arabian female ruler; she presented herself to test the mighty King Shlomoh with hard questions and spoke to him openly. The Hebrew expression "she came to Shlomoh" used in the Bible in 1Kings 10:2 and 2Chronicles 9:1 conveys an interesting implication: that she had the explicit purpose of sexual relations with the King, who was not reluctant to accomplish her wishes, as it is written in following verses that "King Shlomoh gave to the Queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked", implying that he also satisfied her sexually. This event became the source of many legends suggesting that both sovereigns had a son that founded a Solomonic dynasty that ruled in Yemen (or Ethiopia). There are not reliable proofs that may credit such a possibility, except that about two centuries later the Sabeans had a Semitic-styled male monarchy, and one of the earliest kings mentioned was Yati'amar, which is a Hebrew name (Ithamar).

Since the 3rd century c.e. the Sabean Himyarite Kingdom was enjoying a cultural revival in which the historical Israelite presence played an essential role, so much that even the king Dhu Nuwas adopted Judaism (even though the ancient Sabean religion was still practised by most Yemenites). This new feature was not appreciated by the nominally Christian Ethiopia and the Eastern Roman Empire, that agreed in joining their efforts to overthrow the Himyarite Kingdom. The Yemenite economy was weakened because of the commercial boycott promoted by the rival states that subsequently moved war against the Himyarite Kingdom. Yemen fell under the Ethiopians, that occupied the country and settled their own dynasty in 525 c.e. Yet, the Ethiopian Axumite rule did not last long, the ambitions of Byzantium and Persia to take control over the region resulted in a victory for the Persians, that subjected the whole Southern Arabia around 570 c.e. until the Islamic invasion. The end of the independent Yemen paved the way for their unification with the Nabatean Arabs advancing from the north.

At this point we have got a general description of the ethnic composition of Arabia when the whole peninsula was unified and the Arabic language was defined.

by Avraham Sándor