by Steve Tamari  

Arabs emerged on the world historical stage in the 7th century CE with the Prophet Muhammad and the rise of Islam. Muhammad was born in Makkah (Mecca) in the western part of the Arabian Peninsula, an important entrepot on the trade routes connecting Yemen to the south, the Mediterranean to the north, the Persian Gulf to the east, and Africa through the Red Sea port of Jeddah to the west. In a period of economic, political, and religious ferment, Muhammad delivered a spiritual and social message based on the unity and oneness of God. In 622, Muhammad established the original Muslim community in Medina. The popularity of his message and the weakness of the Byzantine and Sasanian empires to the north led to the success of a series of dramatic conquests. Within 20 years of Muhammad's death in 632, Muslim Arabs ruled a territory extending from Egypt in the west to deep into Iran in the east.

Arabs and the Arabic language played central roles in the spread of Islam. The Qur'an, the holy book of the Muslims, is God's word as transmitted to Muhammad in Arabic. The perfection of its language and the fact that Muslims consider its words the words of God (“Allah” in Arabic) make Arabic a sacred language for Muslims. Until the advent of the Abbasid dynasty in 750 CE, Arabs also dominated Islamic institutions. By that time, however, Islam became the religion of Arabs and non-Arabs alike, and the Arab elements diminished in importance as non-Arab cultures, particularly Persian, Indian, and Greek, contributed to the emergence of a new Islamic civilization.

The mixing and melding of Arabs with other populations produced a cultural and scientific flowering which reached its apogee between the 8th and 10th centuries CE. Arabic was the language of politics and belles lettres. But, within the rubric of an Islamic civilization, Muslims and non-Muslims of a variety of ethnic backgrounds translated philosophic texts from Greek, adapted tales from Sanskrit, and copied the styles of the ancient Persian courts. Islamic scientists made path-breaking discoveries in medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and mechanics. They invented algebra, demonstrated the circulation of the blood, developed the astrolabe, and were the first to use a magnetic compass for navigation.

In the fine arts, Arabo-Islamic civilization excelled in architecture, calligraphy, ceramics, textiles, and finely decorated metals. The most original architectural innovation of Arab Islam was the hypostyle mosque, a building in which the roof is supported by rows of columns. The congregational mosques of Cordoba in Spain, Kairouan in modern Tunisia, Cairo, Damascus, and Samarra in Iraq survive as monumental examples of this style of architecture. As Islamic civilization did not encourage representational art, Arabic calligraphy developed into a fine art in the preparation of manuscripts as well as in decorating buildings and objects. The highly stylized image known as “arabesque” was another way to express ideas without resorting to representation. Craft centers of the Arab world produced (and produce) fine textiles known around the world such as damask (from ‘‘Damascus'' in Syria) and muslin (from ‘‘Mosul'' in Iraq). Lusterware—pottery decorated by applying metallic compounds to the glaze—was developed during the earliest period of Islamic history. Finely decorated bronze utilitarian objects indicate a long tradition of incorporating art into the utensils of everyday use.

Today Islam claims around one billion adherents around the world and is the fastest growing religion in the United States. Although the vast majority of Muslims are non-Arabs, Arabic continues to maintain its special status as Muslims around the world study classical Arabic in order to recite the Qur'an.

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