Civilization IV The Civilizations: Arabia

Before the spread of Islam and the Arabic language, the term "Arab" referred to any of the nomadic residents of the Arabian Peninsula. When used in a modern context, "Arab" refers to any of the Arabic-speaking peoples who reside on the Atlantic Coast of Africa, Southwestern Iran, Egypt, Sudan, Saudi-Arabia, Syria, and Iraq. The earliest nomadic inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula herded their sheep, goats, and camels through an unforgiving desert environment; while those Arabs who settled in the oases provided date and cereal agriculture as trade staples for Arab caravans that transported spices, ivory, and gold from southern Arabia and the Horn of Africa to the civilizations farther north.

During the 7th century AD, Muhammad emerged as the prophet for the religion of Islam, which was widely adopted by the Arab community. Islam unified the Bedouins and the town-dwellers of the oases, and within a century, spread throughout most of the present day Arab-speaking world. The newfound social organization that followed Islam offered new possibilities for the Arabs as agricultural production and intercity trading, particularly in luxury goods, saw significant increases. Gradually, the triad of temple, court, and market formed, as well as a standardized style of writing for laws and other texts. New institutions also emerged, including coinage, territorial deities, royal priesthoods, and standing armies, which further enhanced Arab power.

By proclaiming his message publicly, Muhammad gained many followers. After his death, the succeeding caliphs continued to spread the faith of Islam far beyond the religion's birthplace in Mecca. Aside from initial conquests in Iraq and Syria, the Arab conquests penetrated regions including Anatolia, Northern Africa, and Iran. Using their Camel Archers to cross difficult desert terrain, the Arabs were able to create an empire stretching from Spain to the borders of India, in barely more than a hundred years. The Arab empire of the medieval period was far more advanced than contemporary Europeans; Harun al-Rashid's Baghdad may have held a million people at the same time that Charlemagne's Aachen was a "capital" of ten thousand. Centers of learning attracted scholars from across the Muslim world to great cities such as Baghdad, Damascus, and Cordoba. The Arabs of this period made many advances in medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and other areas, as well as translating many of the classics of the Ancient Greeks into Arabic, thereby saving them from destruction.

During the period of the Crusades, the Arabic world came under assault from Christian Europe. The greatest of Muslim generals from this period was Salah al-Din, better known as Saladin, who successfully defeated the Third Crusade and recaptured Jerusalem for the Arabs. In addition to his military skills, Saladin was known to be a pious man and was well-respected by his enemies as well as his allies - which was very unusual indeed for the Crusades.

For most of the past five centuries, much of the Arab world has been ruled by foreigners; first by the Ottoman Turks, then by the Western colonial powers. Since the onset of de-colonization in the 1950s, traditional Arab values have been modified through the combined pressures of urbanization, industrialization, and Western influence. While urban Arabs still tend to identify themselves more by nationality than by tribe, village farmers revere the pastoral nomad's romantic way of life and claim a kinship with the great desert tribes of the past. As heirs to the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Hebrews, even to the Greeks and Indians, the societies created by Muslims bridge time and space. The original Arab tribes, in less than 20 years after Muhammad's death, defeated the Byzantine and Persian empires, occupied a vast territory from Libya to Persia, and then developed into the Arab or Islamic Empire known today.