The Arabian Continent
30 October 2012
The are many places that have been called the “crossroads of the world” but I would think that Arabia deserves this epithet more than most places on the globe. The Arabian peninsula lies near the geographical center of the Old World, where Africa, Asia, and Europe all meet. The cities of the region have long been linked by trade routes — both overland and maritime — and these trade routes have led them to the farthest reaches of the Old World. Many of the peoples of Arabia thus became involved in commerce, and as an inevitable by-product of wide-ranging commerce throughout the Old World, merchants and tradesmen were often the conduit of knowledge, playing a crucial role in idea diffusion between the Orient, the Occident, and Africa. And long before this, the sequential iterations of hominids who came out of Africa almost certainly came through Arabia on their way to Asia and Europe.
In The Scandinavian Continent I pointed out the the Fennoscandia region is geographically almost as large as Western Europe, and it is only convention — that is to say, only an accident of history — that we refer to a “European continent” but we don’t refer to a “Scandinavian continent.” Similar reasoning holds for the Arabian Peninsula. Indeed, Arabia has more right to be called a continent in its own right than Europe. At 3,237,500 square kilometers (according to Wikipedia), Arabia is larger than both Europe and Fennoscandia. If we include within this region the lands roughly bounded by the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Red Sea — pretty much everything traditionally encompassed by the Eurocentric term “Middle East” — then the Arabian continent is quite a big larger than Europe, Central Asia, or the Indian subcontinent.
There is an interesting structural similarity between the Scandinavian continent and the Arabian continent: both regions possess little arable land, so that both were marginalized during the apotheosis of agricultural civilization — say, from the end of Viking depredations on the European periphery up to the Industrial Revolution. Both regions hosted (and still host) nomadic pastoralists. In Scandinavia these were the Saami, who followed the reindeer herds, while in Arabia these were the Bedouin, who lived by herding Camel, sheep, and goats. An important structural difference is that many Arabs regard the Bedouin life as the fons et origo of Arabian culture, whereas the Saami have been viewed as marginal to the cultural life of Scandinavia by the settled population.
Here is one formulation of the relation between the Bedouin and Arab culture more generally speaking:
“…the Bedouins are looked upon, not only by the Arab cities, but by the entire Arab world with the exception of its Westernized elements, as images and figures from the past, as living ancestors, as latterday heirs and witnesses to the ancient glory of the heroic age. Hence the importance of the Bedouin ethos, and of the Bedouins’ aristocratic moral code, for the Arab world in general.”
Raphael Patai, The Arab Mind, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976, p. 73
As I have many times emphasized, the relationship between life and landscape is profound, and in the case of the Arabian continent the traditional life of the people of the region continues to be revered even as society has departed to an ever greater extent from the Bedouin way of life, and this in a society in which most pre-Islamic cultural manifestations are marginalized. The ancient way of life of the people, which far pre-dates Islam, is the norm and the measure to which contemporary Islamic society in Arabia conforms itself.
Between the nomadic ways of desert herders and the ultra-modern cities of the Arabian continent, there is an unbridgeable gap, and yet the people of the region must bridge, or attempt to bridge, that chasm between two ideals — the ideal of Bedouin society and the ideal of Islamic society — every day. The origin of the Ummah — the Islamic community — is to be found in Medina, where the Prophet established the first Islamic community, which therefore become normative. Medina began as an oasis settlement, and therefore was the exception of a settled society in a region dominated by nomadic pastoralists. The Ansar — the Helpers of the Prophet — were settled peoples of the Medina oasis. The cities today are oases in the desert, but the land is still a desert suitable only for pastoralism. The ideal of a settled Islamic society and the ideal of a nomadic desert society interpenetrate, and both exist — coexist — in the present. Since both interpenetrating ideals are constitutive of the social fabric in the Arabian continent, Arabian identity is in tension with itself at its very origins.
The continuity and the unity of the people that makes this geographical region a continent — for continents defined in terms of peoples (and the ecology of their way of life) makes as much sense as the arbitrary conventions that have hitherto been accepted as the basis of continents — is a continuity and a unity that constitutes a discontinuous and disunified identity. This is not unique; many identities are famously contested and conflicted. But the particular dialectic represented by the continuing influence of a Nomadic ideal, is found only in a few places in the world, for example, among the Turks, the Mongolians, and some of the native peoples of the plains of North America. In these cases, it is not clear if there is an equally significant thread of a settled ideal as the dialectical other of the nomadic ideal. That an entire continent should be conflicted in this particular way, and be defined by this conflict of identity, is of no small geopolitical interest.
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