Allama Iqbal passionately believed in the Islamic renaissance and argued that the rejuvenation of the civilization that ruled the world for nearly a thousand years would start in its birthplace at the hands of desert Arabs.
Iqbal made the prediction at a time of great turmoil and utter chaos in the Muslim world after the collapse of the Ottoman caliphate. I’ve often wondered what exactly Iqbal had in mind when he pitched for the Arabs at a time when they seemingly offered no hope for optimism. Sir Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands offers the answer.
Thesiger’s book, reissued by Motivate to mark the centenary of the British traveller and explorer this year, is a powerful tribute to those Arabs and their way of life. It is one of the finest books I’ve read and enjoyed in years – absolutely riveting even for someone who often finds himself reading up to three to four books at the same time. Thesiger is no great writer. He is completely innocent of the little games that modern travel writers play to make their book a best seller. His language is matter-of-fact and tone dispassionate although there are some flashes of the self-deprecating British humour. Yet it remains a pioneering, trend-setting project to understand the Arabs, especially Bedu, their life style, culture and what makes them so different from the rest of us. What makes Thesiger so eminently readable and his work a reference point to generations of travellers and Middle East experts is his genuine empathy for his subject and passion for a region where time has stood still for thousands of years. Or at least, it did until the discovery of oil.
While Muslims around the world hide a soft corner for Arabs in their hearts because of their association with the Prophet, the Arabs’ image around the world, especially in the West, is nothing to write home about. This is not a new phenomenon and has nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks or Shaikh Osama. The demonisation of Arabs and Muslims in Western literature and culture is as old as the Crusades. This is why Thesiger’s love for Arabs comes as a whiff of fresh air.
He saw the Arabs as the guardians of tradition and culture passed down for centuries in the region described as the Cradle of Civilization: “All that is best in the Arabs came from the desert: their deep religious instinct, their sense of fellowship; their generosity and hospitality; their dignity and the regard which they have for the dignity of others as fellow human beings; their humour, their courage and patience, their language and their passionate love of poetry. But the Arabs are a race which produces its best only under extreme hardship and deteriorates progressively as living conditions become easier.”
It’s a miracle of history that the desert Arabs with the power of their new faith, created a new civilisation, uniting into one society the incompatible cultures of the Mediterranean, Persia, India and Far East. He says: “Wherever I went among Muslims, whether it was in Nigeria or in China, I found much that was familiar to me in the pattern of their lives. If the civilizations of today were to disappear as completely as those of Babylon and Assyria, a school history book two thousand years hence might devote a few pages to the Arabs and not even mention the United States of America.”
Will the Arabs ever rediscover the qualities and the glory that once conquered the world? I don’t know about that but I wish this British love affair with Arabia would never end.
From Aijaz Zaka Syed's article "A love affair with Arabia" in Khaleej Times.
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Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org