The Rich Arabian Literature
Gibbon speaks of the times of ignorance that preceded Mohammed. This is true if we speak of Semitic Arabia, but later research has revealed a different source for the literature of the land. Britannica says of Arabia (Vol. 2, p. 230), “Arabia if poor in monuments is superabundantly rich in manuscripts. There are verses inscribed to the kings and heroes of Yemen dated a thousand years or more before the Christian era. We find undeniable specimens of at least two full centuries before Mohammed, of poems which in vigor and polish yield to few composed in Arabic or any other tongue. At this early date, we find metrical and rhythmical laws simple, yet susceptible to the highest art, with a scansion of almost Horatian elegance and variety, that Pope himself might have admired but could hardly have imitated.” The nations of Arabia that were nomadic were tardy in the arts of peace. Before the time of Mohammed, they had no literature. The times of the prophet were growing ancient when his disciples wrote. To whom then would we attribute this earlier literature of Arabia? Let us go deeper into research to find out.
Oriental histories say that the language spoken in the more ancient times was wholly different from the Arabic of Mohammed. The fragments of verse composed at least a thousand years before Christ was in the ancient Himyaritic tongue and the language of Yemen glorifying its heroes were the same Himyaritic dialect. In the days before Islam, not far from Mecca at Okada, was held a national meeting like the Olympiads of the Greeks. It was an annual fair, frequented by men of all conditions from every quarter of Arabia. It lasted thirty days, preceding the annual pilgrimage, which itself was taken over by Mohammed from the earlier life. As well as the exchange of corn and wine, there was the enjoyment of eloquence and poetry. We may read in our own language the seven original poems which were inscribed in letters of gold and suspended in the temple at Mecca. In the Fourth and Fifth Centuries A. D., poetry had become a refined art. The metrical contests were firmly established. The most renowned poets crowned at these festivals were Antar, Amur-El-Kais, and Tara fan. This Arabian Olympiad was abolished by the ignorance and fanaticism of the first followers of Mohammed.
Let us examine this fair that had sprung out of the culture of the earlier Cushite Arabian races Horse races, poetical recitals, and every kind of amusement was used to offset the weightier commercial transactions of an open fair. It had the proportions of a national exhibition. Here the best masters of art met for the purpose of reciting their compositions and receiving the reward. Metenebhe was esteemed by many as the greatest Arabian poet. In range of thought and excellence of diction he surpassed all. Toghrai furnished Tennyson with his model for Locksley Hall. Ebn Farigh composed poetry that has never in its kind been surpassed or even equaled by the poets of any land. We find in the annals Noseyyeb, a Negro who was master of descriptive poetry. This is the estimate of the Arabian poets by the literary critics of high repute of other lands. Many European writers drew their inspirations from romances and legends like the Exploits of Antar, and the Arabian Nights, which have become a part of the real literature of the world.
The culture of the Saracens and Islam arose and flourished from ingrafting of Semitic blood upon the older Cushite root. The mingled language was distinguished for its richness, softness and the high degree of development. By the spread of Islam it became the sole written language of all southwestern Asia, eastern and northern Africa and for a time of southern Spain, Malta and Sicily. Arabic writers of the Semitic division, wrote so late, that from religious prejudice and lapse of time they were incapable of being faithful historians of the older Cushite civilization. In their versions, those old cities of the Adites and Thalmonites were enterprising rich and powerful. They represented them as of wonderful magnificence, but Mohammedan ardor, as Baldwin points out, executed upon these cities miraculous judgments, because of unbelief in Islam, which did not then exist. “These are but faint and confused recollections of a civilization that had decaying onuments, ruined cities, and mysterious antiquities before the, time of Khatan which itself was ancient. These wonderful creations disappeared, not in fiery wrath from heaven but under the influence of thousands of years of time and change.” (Prehistoric Nations, Baldwin, p. 104.)
The Koreysh to whom many European and American writers delight in dedicating the Arabian genius have carefully, too carefully, built up the family tree that includes Mohammed himself and in their annals, the Yemenites, the genuine Arabs of genius, appear as cousins and descendants of Heber. On these points all Mohammedan annalists are equally positive and that we should accept these falsities, the fruit of vanity and ignorance, Britannica says, is surprising. Mohammedan chroniclers adopted much from the Jewish records, their country at that time was full of the Jews dispersed by the conquest of their own lands. They conceal the facts of their own late appearance in Arabia by childish fictions. Saracen conquest was directly represented by the tribes of Mustareb origin, but the civilizing influence sprang from the accompanying arms of the old culture, the ancient aristocratic tribes of Yemen. Nations in the south, east and north, of the same ancestry, had sunk to half vassalage to Persian or Byzantine authority. In their hands had been the custody of the temple of Mecca which was seized and forever after held by the Koreysh who thus gained religious preeminence by possession of the treasures of gold, silver, jewels and other offerings gathered by pthe agan piety of Cushite Arabians. The Semitic Arabian race has not been noted for any creative or constructive qualities and until united in conquest with the more ancient Cushite. rthe ace was wholly destructive. Mohammed took over a primitive Cushite pilgrimage to Mecca.
Myers says, “The poetry of the Arabians was wholly original. It was the natural and beautiful expression of Arabic genius.” The fanciful imagery of the Arabian poetry and the legends were very much like the literature of the same type in India. It showed in the superior development of the speech of Islam, the luster of the empire of the caliphs, and in the knowledge of the arts and sciences carried to western Europe by the Saracens. This rich Arabian language was the union of the dialects of northern and central Semitic Arabians and the Himyaritic of southern Arabia. This can be proved by the similarity of the roots. The languages had so overlapped that the Cushite inhabitants of Palestine, who were called Samaritans, could converse with the Hebrews. Christ talked with the Samaritan woman at the well. Constant trade, relations had unified the tongues. Moses in earlier days had been able to converse with the Ethiopian daughters of Jethro. Gideon and his servant went down to the camp of the Midianites, who were Cushites, he overboard their conversation and understood it. The Queen of Sheba, who was Ethiopian, was able to converse with Solomon. The Ethiopian treasurer of Queen Candace was reading a Hebrew the version of the Scriptures when Peter was told by the Spirit to preach to him Christ crucified.
Students of philology know that there was great dissimilarity between the Hebrew of later times and the Arabic; for the language of the Israelites underwent a change during the captivity in Babylon. After the exile, the Hebrews spoke Aramaic. The order of Hebrew letters and Arabic are different. The Arabic of the earliest form has that of the Himyaritic alphabet and are strikingly like this Ethiopian language in form. Thus we see how easy it is for the superficial scholarship to have made the mistake of blending under the same name Arabian, two distinct races, to have failed to recognize the blending of two languages, to have failed to perceive the earlier ancient Cushite civilization. Even the Hebrews were introduced to the art of building cities and to a settled life by the Cushites and Canaanites. The Semitic race was always nomadic, never becoming settled traders, unless mixed with Hamitic blood. In the dispersion of the Hebrew family, they scattered to Arabia, Africa, and to the east. Arabia is densely populated with a free black population. They have so intermixed with Semitic Arabians that a fair skin is an exception. In Arabia because of the old high Ethiopic culture no prejudice whatever exists against black and Arab alliances. There is no social or political bar between African and Arab. A Negro may become the highest official or ruler if his talents allow.
We must decide from these evidence, that out of the bare life of the Semitic Arabians could not have sprung the abundant roots and rich variety of the perfected Arabic tongue, but these additions were but budded growth from the rich ancient Cushite Arabian life. It seemed a language most perfect as “a vehicle for impassioned and sublime appeals, for artless simplicity and philosophic subtleties. The genius of the Arab constantly flowered in the poetry of highly artistic form, delicate descriptive poems, and novels in verse.” This was the Arabian heritage of splendor from the magnificence of Cushite Arabian days which the prodigality of the later caliphs sought to imitate. The tales of genii, fairies, and enchantments passed into the poetry of the west. We might think this addition to the western barbarism of little worth but the images and fancies of powerful imagination have given the world the fuel for the fires of art. The warlike Arabian, as the earlier cruel Assyrian, imbibing an older culture, by conquest scattered widely for later ages the precious cultural seeds of the ancient Cushite empire of Ethiopians.
The Arabian Nights Entertainments filled Europe in 1717 with wonder and delight. Few books have been translated and read among so many nationalities as these tales, which were the gateway into the fairyland of our childhood. They were a collection of tales from the widespread colonies of the Cushite race. The richest of the tales came from India, the cradle of story and fable. Many were from Bagdad the royal city of the eastern caliphs. They are fanciful pictures of the decadence from a higher and more perfect civilization. The Arabian Nights will always be one of the most wonderful books of the world and is an addition to the world’s imperishable literature. The Arabian writers were remarkable for their sublimity of conception, a power to stir the heart, and the intensity of love and hate shown in their creations. This literature carried westward by the Saracens had a powerful influence in molding the forms of poetry and letters of Europe. Arabian ideals and philosophy rule all the ecclesiastical life of Persia, Turkey and all of the eastern lands that have come under Mohammedan sway.
The Arabians brought to Europe not only poetry but astronomy and mathematical science. They gave Europe the nine digits, the Arabian figures to ten, and algebra. The oldest mathematical book, 1700 B. C., contains some problems similar to algebra. The book was written by the Ethiopian Aahmes. We find a little of the study among the Greeks, but the Arabians brought it up to the importance of a science. In the tenth century, they left the Greek masters behind and reached the limits of spherical trigonometry and solved quadratic and even cubic equations. What the later Phoenicians were in navigating the Mediterranean, the Sabaeans had been in the Indian Ocean. They created the knowledge of geography in the Middle Ages, which they had gained from the commercial activities that had nourished the ancient cities of Babylon, Tyre and Sidon. Lucian thought that the Arabian Cushites were. the first who invented astronomy, being led to the science by their cloudless skies and favorable climate and by their surprising intellectual sagacity, subtlety, and force.
With the knowledge gained from the earlier civilization, the Saracens made their own scientific additions. In the earlier days no Greek poetry, orations or history were ever translated into Arabic. Arabian imagination and reason did not need such assistance. For a period the studies of the Mohammedans were confined to the interpretation of the Koran and the eloquence and poetry of their native tongue, but the, later caliphs collected the knowledge of other seats of ancient culture. With comparatively rough musical instruments, they carefully elaborated a musical scale. Their book of songs contains a hundred breaths of air, each esteemed a masterpiece by competent judges. As a people continually facing death in battle, medical art became highly esteemed. They were the first to make medicine a true science. They invented the probang, a valuable surgical instrument. To them must be credited the lancet and the coaching needle. Arabians were the first to develop chemistry and they first prepared prescriptions for the mixing of drugs. From them have come down to us most of the medical recipes of today. For whatever resources chemistry availed itself up to a recent date, we are indebted to Arabic research. The real scientific development of medicine must be credited to their genius.
In the great cities of Bagdad, Cairo, and Cordova, centuries before Europe could boast of anything beyond cathedral or monastic schools, great Arabian universities were drawing together vast throngs of eager young Arabians; and creating an atmosphere of learning and refinement. Students from all parts of Europe in the Middle Ages studied mathematics and medicine in the Arabian schools. The famous university of Cairo has at the present day an attendance of several thousand, a survival of the great days of Arabian Islam. Their libraries and schools were visited by many Christians, especially in Spain, who helped to introduce their learning into western Europe. In geography, history, philosophy, medicine physics and mathematics, the Arabians rendered important service to science. They are considered the founders of modern experimental science. They devised the duo-decimal system of notation and gave Europe this indispensable instrument of calculation. The Arabian architect developed a new striking style of an edifice, which has been preserved at Cordova and Granada in Spain. This style has given modern builders some of their finest models. The temples of India, perhaps unsurpassed in beauty anywhere in the world, are the result of Arabian genius unfolding in Mohammedan art.
The rival schools of the Arabian empire, investigated in the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries, every nicety of grammar. The grammatical treatise of the celebrated Ebn Malek is even now a standard work in the hands of our professors. The practice in the earlier days of suspending in gold letters the poems of the highest merit that won the premium, in the temple of Mecca, had brought to the highest point the passion for perfect results in the literature. To Hereeree must be credited with the absolute mastership of language, combined with exquisite taste in the use of the subtlest refinements of both rhetoric and grammar. His Makamat of the eleventh century, though it has many imitators has never yet had a rival. Great libraries existed at Bagdad, Alexandria, and Cairo. In every city, the productions of Arabic literature were copied and collected. The royal library of the Fatimite caliphs contained over one hundred thousand manuscripts, elegantly transcribed and splendidly bound. The Umayyads of Spain had formed a library of six hundred thousand volumes. Everywhere the Arabians of the tenth century conquered, they became the preservers and distributors of knowledge.
Romances and stories of a biographical character were very popular among the Arabians. Antar the Lion, 525 A. D. was the story of the life of one of the most renowned poets of those crowned at the contests at Oakland, which in the earlier days were more greatly attended than those of Thebes. Antar was a black poet who had killed a man who had failed in respect to a woman. He had a purely African face, his mother being a black slave. He married a princess of one of the noblest and purest tribes. By deeds of heroism, he became a protector of his people and the pattern of chivalry. His fame spread across the Arabian peninsula and throughout the Mohammedan world. Like the Homeric legends, his deeds were recorded in poetic form. The romance of Antar was a source of wonder and admiration for hundreds of years to millions of Arabians. He was the father of knighthood, champion of the weak and oppressed, protector of women, impassioned love poet. It was from the tales of Antar that Europe received her inspirations for romantic chivalry, so common in the twelfth century in Italy and France. How Cushite ideals have colored all the life of the ages?
This national classic, Antar the Lion, the Arabian Iliad, is of great length in the original, being often thirty or forty manuscript volumes. Portions of it have been translated into English, German and French. The original book purports to have been the delight of all Arabians. Every wild Bedouin of the desert knew much of the tale by heart and listened to its periods and poems with quivering interest. Compare this with our poetical apathy today. Every coffee house in Aleppo, Bagdad, or Constantinople had a narrator who nightly recited it to rapt audiences. The united sentiment of the east has been that the romance of Antar, is a book that has reached the highest summit of literature. One Arabian author has said that the Arabian Nights, is for the amusement of women and children, but that Antar is a book for men. From it, they learn eloquence, magnanimity, generosity, statecraft, and bravery. Mohammed a foe to the ancient gatherings that fostered poetry, instructed his disciples to relate the traditions of Antar to their children. There is nothing surprising in this recognition and adoration of Antar when we understand that his race was the basic blood of Arabia.
The Saracens also carried westward knowledge of irrigation, rotation of crops, fertilizers and the art of grafting and producing new varieties of plants and fruits. This knowledge came directly from the Cushites of the southern and western coasts, who were peculiarly agricultural. From these came cotton, flax, hemp, buckwheat, rice, sugar cane, and coffee. Others of our vegetables trace to the same source including asparagus, artichokes, beans and such fruits as melons, oranges, lemons, apricots, and plums. To prove that these plants originated among Cushites, wild specimens which only grow where the plant originated, can be found across the Soudan. The Arabs excelled in manufactures. The industrious Arabs led the way by their inventions and skill to most of the complicated manufactures of our time. In metallurgy, their art in tempering and enameling became justly famous. No sword blades ever ranked higher than those of Damascus. It was also famous for its brocades, tapestries and the damask of our day which still preserves the name of the city. No coppersmiths excelled those of Bagdad.
Cordova was famous for leather, Toledo for armor, and Granada for rich silks. Specimens of their skill in porcelain yet remain in Spain and Syria. The smiths of Oman were unexcelled in gold and silver workmanship. Arabian craftsmen taught the Venetians how to make crystal and plate glass. The work of these potters and weavers was the admiration and’ despair of the craftsmen of Europe. The words morocco, gauze from Gaza, and cordovan, still in use in our times attest their cleverness in preparing and dyeing leather. They seem to have introduced the pointed arch into Europe, swelling domes, vaulted roofs, arched porches, and minarets were characteristic of Arabic architecture. The pendulum and the semaphoric telegraph, if not invented, were introduced by them into Europe, as was the manufacture of silk and cotton, and an invention of the highest importance–the Mariners’ the compass. They knew the lost secrets of dying. As early as 706 A. D. writing paper was made at Mecca, whence it spread through the Arabian dominions to the western world. They claim the invention of gun-powder as far back as the eleventh century.
To sum up, the literature, art, and science of the Arabs formed a connecting link between the civilizations of ancient and modern times. “To them,” says Britannica, “we owe the revival of learning and philosophy in western Europe and the first awakenings of the critical and inquiring spirit, that rescued western Europe from the lethargy of monkish ignorance and from ecclesiastical bigotry. To them is due the credit for most of the useful arts and practical inventions laboriously perfected by later nations. Widespread was the empire of the Arabs’ sword but wider and more durable was the empire of the Arabs’ mind.” (Britannica, V. 2, Arabia, p. 232.) Today among the Bedouins there are no schools. Utterly ignorant of writing and unacquainted with books they trust to memory or imagination. Their assertions as to the past cannot be trusted Yet many a modern history of Arabia is built upon no more solid foundation. It is doubtful it Mohammed could read or write. Their genealogies cannot be depended upon, by the real seeker after truth.
Let us glance at Arabians living today in fixed habitations, as their ancestors have done in Arabia from time immemorial. There are rivalry and enmity between these Cushite settlers of today and the Semitic division that under various forms has never ceased down to our times. Even in the desert, the children of these settled Arabians are taught to read and write and calculate. In the education of the town in general. The possession of written records, the habits of order and reflection, enable the settled Arabs to retain: a more accurate knowledge and nicer distinction of pedigree and race. It was their idols that Mohammed cast down in the Kaaba at Mecca, which had belonged to the kings of Yemen. To the Arabian of the old unsettled nomadic life, we must give the credit of Saracen conquest. These tribes went forth at first unarmed comparatively, spurred on by religious zeal. They bore westward and eastward over the of recrossed highways of the old Cushite empire the latest impulses of that race that in earlier ages had originated civilization for the world. On the crest of the conquering arms rode the princes of Yemen, not one whit less in valor but carrying the genius that fully developed in the lifting of a headlong campaign to the status of a culturing conquest.