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The Social Order of the Peninsula

Under category : Arabia before Islam
2294 2008/05/15 2020/07/10

as we have just seen, the political order of yaman was disturbed because of the geographic circumstances of that country and the political wars of conquest of which it had been the object. per contra, the arabian peninsula was free from any such disturbances. indeed, the political system known in yaman, as well as any other political system-whatever the term may mean or may have meant to the civilized peoples of old-was literally unknown in the areas of tihamah, hijaz, najd, and other wide spaces constituting the arabian peninsula. the sons of the desert were then, as most of them are today, nomads who had no taste for settled life and who knew no kind of permanence other than perpetual movement in search of pasture and satisfaction of the wish of the moment. in the desert, the basic unit of life is not the state but the tribe. moreover, a tribe which is always on the move does not know of any universal law nor does it ever subject itself to any general political order. to the nomad, nothing is acceptable that falls short of total freedom for the individual, for the family, and for the tribe as a whole. settled land farmers, on the other hand, agree to give up part of their freedom, whether to the group as a whole or to an absolute ruler, in exchange for peace, security, and the prosperity which order brings. but the desert man who disdains the prosperity and security of settled life and derides the comforts of urban living cannot give any of his freedom for such "gains." neither does he accept anything short of absolute equality with all the members of his tribe as well as between his tribe and other tribes. naturally, he is moved like all other men by the will to survive and to defend himself, but such will must accord with the principles of honor and integrity demanded by the free life of the desert. therefore, the desert people have never suffered with patience any injustice inflicted upon them but resisted it with all their strength. if they cannot throw off the injustice imposed upon them, they give up the pasture and move out into the wide expanse of the desert. nothing is easier for them than recourse to the sword whenever a conflict seems insoluble under the conventional desert rules of honor, nobility, and integrity. it was these very conditions of desert living which led to the cultivation and growth of the virtues of hospitality, bravery, mutual assistance, neighbor protection, and magnanimity. it is not by accident that these virtues are stronger and more popular in the desert and weaker and more scarce in the cities. for the above-mentioned economic reasons neither byzantium nor persia entertained any ideas of conquering the arabian peninsula with the exception of yaman. for they know that the people of the peninsula would prefer emigration to the life of subjection and that they would never yield to any established authority or order.

these nomadic characteristics influenced in large measure the few small towns which grew up in the peninsula along the caravan routes. to these centers the traders used to come in order to rest. in them they found temples wherein to give thanks to the gods for bringing them safely through their travels and for safeguarding their goods while in transit. such were makkah, ta'if, yathrib, and others scattered between the mountains of the west coastland and the desert sands. in their order and organization these towns followed the pattern and laws of the desert. indeed, their being closer to the desert than they were to civilized life was reflected in the system of their tribes and clans, in their morals and customs, and in their strong resistance to any imposition upon their freedom, despite the fact that settled life had somewhat restricted their movements in comparison with their desert cousins. we shall witness more of this in the coming chapters when we talk about makkah and yathrib.

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