Shalmanezer, king of Assyria, fights a major but inconclusive battle at Karkar against his enemy, the ruler of Damascus. An Assyrian scribe, recording the event in cuneiform, notes the impressive size of the enemy forces: 63,000 infantry, 2000 cavalry, 4000 chariots and 1000 warriors on camels. The men on camels, the scribe adds, are brought to the battle by Gindibu the Arab.
This is the first known reference to the Arabs as a distinct group. But nomads from Arabia (probably the source of the entire group of Semitic languagues) have been spreading through the desert fringes of the Fertile Crescent since at least 3000 BC.
The nomads of Arabia: before the 7th century AD
The life of a nomad, without architecture or possessions (other than what can be loaded on a camel), leaves few physical traces. The richness of nomadic culture is in the mind. It is embodied in well-loved stories, in heroic memories of battles with rival tribes, in dreams of love or of the oases of paradise.
As such it is normally lost, once tribes settle. It merges into a generalized mythology. But an accident of history has preserved early Arabic culture in more distinct form. These nomads are the backbone of the first Muslim armies. Their way of life is revered by early Muslim scholars, who collect and record the poems and stories handed down in a long oral tradition.
Arabic oral poetry: pre-Islamic
The poems of the Arab nomads are invented, embroidered, recited by specialists known as sha’ir (meaning approximately ‘one who knows’, and therefore close to the English word ‘seer’). Recorded in anthologies of the 8th century and 9th century, and dating from perhaps two centuries earlier, the surviving examples provide a rare glimpse of poems from a pre-literate era.
They fall into two categories. The earlier tradition consists of short poems of a passionately partisan kind. With few exceptions, the theme is praise of one’s own tribe or abuse of the enemy. The other kind of poem, known as qasidah, is longer (up to 100 lines) and more elaborate in form.
The qasidah consists of four sections, the first three of which have well-established themes. In the opening section (nasib), the poet describes himself on a journey with some companions; they reach a deserted encampment, and he tells how he was once here with a loved one until fate parted them when their tribes moved on to fresh pastures (a sentimental beginning considered essential to put the listeners in a good mood).
The second section is devoted to praise of an animal, the camel on which the poet is riding. The third is a tour de force, describing a dramatic scene such as a hunt or battle. With the fourth section the poet finally reaches his topic – again usually praise, of tribe or patron or of the poet himself.
The Arab conquests: 7th century AD
One of the most dramatic and sudden movements of any people in history is the expansion, by conquest, of the Arabs in the 7th century (only the example of the Mongols in the 13th century can match it). The desert tribesmen of Arabia form the bulk of the Muslim armies. Their natural ferocity and love of warfare, together with the sense of moral rectitude provided by their new religion, form an irresistible combination.
When Muhammad dies in 632, the western half of Arabia is Muslim. Two years later the entire peninsula has been brought to the faith, and Muslim armies have moved up into the desert between Syria and Mesopotamia.
The great Christian cities of Syria and Palestine fall to the Arabs in rapid succession from AD 635. Damascus, in that year, is the first to be captured. Antioch follows in 636. And 638 brings the greatest prize of all, in Muslim terms, when Jerusalem is taken after a year’s siege.
It is a moment of profound significance for the young religion, for Islam sees itself as the successor of Judaism and Christianity. The city of the people of Moses, in which Jesus also preaches and dies, is a holy place for Muslims too. Moses and Jesus are Muhammad’s predecessors as prophets. A link with Muhammad himself will also soon emerge in Jerusalem.
Muslim Persia: AD 637-751
Persia falls to the Arabs as a consequence of the battle of Kadisiya, close to the Euphrates, in 637. After their victory the Arabs sack the city of Ctesiphon (carefully sharing out the famous Spring Carpet). The last Sassanian emperor, Yazdegerd III, is five at the time. He and his court escape to the east, but he is eventually assassinated, in 651, at Merv. His name remains, even today, in use in the chronology of the Parsees. They number their years from the start of his reign in 632.
Meanwhile the Arabs win another victory over Persian forces at Nahavand in 641. They capture Isfahan in 642 and Herat in 643. Persia becomes, for a century, part of the Umayyad caliphate.
The final push eastwards for Islam, in the central Asian plateau, is in more difficult terrain and is more protracted. Throughout the second half of the 7th century there is fighting in and around the Hindu Kush, but by the early years of the 8th century the Arabs control the full swathe of territory from the Arabian Sea in the south (they enter Sind and move into India as far north as Multan by 712), up through Kandahar and Balkh (either side of the Hindu Kush) to Bukhara and Samarkand in the north, beyond the Amu Darya.
At this northern extreme they are neighbours of the T’ang Chinese. The eventual clash between these two powers, an encounter won by the Arabs, comes in 751 at the Talas river.