The way of life of the Bedouin was not a mere preamble to a higher civilization: it is a rounded, complete culture in itself. It is a culture no doubt formed and influenced by climate and geography and to a certain extent imbued with what may be described as barbaric notions; but in the last resort it is the outcome of realistic human responses to a human condition reduced to the barest essentials of life and lacking all those incidentals of ease which mould society in softer climes.
The natural environment of the Bedouin is hard and inclement. Steppes and deserts, sometimes traversed by dry riverbeds which carry water only after infrequent rains; the scorching heat of summer days and the biting cold of winter nights; shallow desert wells here and there, yielding scant quantities of mostly brackish water; vegetation so scarce for most of the year that it allows only for the breeding of camels and small cattle; and a tremendous expanse of skies, pale and burning in daytime like molten metal, and infinitely high and majestic, black and starry, by night: all this has contributed to the emergence of a special human type and of moral and social characteristics not to be found anywhere else.
From his earliest childhood to his death, from generation to generation, and from century to century, the bedouin has been accustomed to contemplate infinity and eternity in the sky above him and in the stillness and solitude of the desert around him; and, at the same time, he has learned to observe human life in all its fundamental nakedness, devoid of the garments of security and the rudiments of settled comfort. His instinctive understanding of the frailty and ignorant significance of human life and his appreciation of human motivations has become acute, sharpened by the awareness of ever-present danger and, hence, the necessity of gauging correctly the reaction of ones fellow-man. Thus, cosmic consciousness and an instinctive directness of perception have become the basic characteristics of the bedouin psyche.
Nor is this all. The hardness of his environment has made the Bedouin realise the intrinsic loneliness of human existence, and thus the need for close cooperation between individuals; and the instinctive desire for cooperation gradually achieved maturity in the conscious concept of tribal solidarity. In its turn, the consciousness of belonging to a definite human group, the tribe, brought with it the desire for enhancing its strength and durability even at the price of personal loss: and so, pride and courage, fervour and enthusiasm for extra-personal goals – all this epitomised in the Arabian concept of hamasa– became the natural expression of bedouin tribalism, just as the concept of hospitality became the hallmark of the individual bedouin, man and woman alike. And dominating all these traits, embracing them, as it were within a single sweep of consciousness is the ideal of muruwwa– that untranslatable concept, common to man, woman and child, comprising virtues like generosity, sense of honour, directness, valour, chivalry and courtesy. Allied to all this is an exceptional sense of language- the ability to express the most complicated perception of reality in a single phrase, or in a mot juste, or in poetry: so much so that, next to the Quran, the speech of the Bedouin has forever remained the standard by which Arab philologists measure the purity of style and diction in all forms of Arabic literature.
In short, bedouin life as it has manifested itself throughout known history cannot by any means be characterised as primitive. To be sure, it is an unruly life, full of contradictions, of weird ideas and tribal warfare, of violence as well as of outstanding examples of kindness and generosity, of betrayals as well as deeds of supreme self-sacrifice: a form of life which has remained stationary throughout countless centuries, lacking what is described as ‘progress’: but, nevertheless, it is a fully developed, mature culture, possessed of a life perception all its own and absolutely different from all other cultural formations.
All this must be stressed if one is to understand the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of Arabia’s spiritual and social history – and what was the precursor to God’s final revelation.