W. A. Clouston
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Pages (PDF): 478
Publication Date: 1881
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This is an anthology of 19th century Orientalist translations of Arabian poetry, many of which are very rare, as is this particular book. Most of the included works either predated Muhammed or were contemporary, so there are many fascinating bits of pre-Islamic lore. Included is the Moallakat, or the 'Hanged' Poems, a collection of seven pre-Islamic poets whose works were once displayed (i.e. 'hanged') in the Ka'ba. Another highlight is a synopsis of the 'Romance of Antar,' an oral saga of a brave prince of old Arabia.
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IN the modern history of the world, no race or nation has figured so largely, or so widely and permanently influenced the destinies of mankind, as the race of shepherds, dwelling in tents, who have occupied the peninsula of Arabia almost since the Deluge. Roused, from the fatal lethargy of the gross idolatry into which they had long been sunk, by the enthusiasm of one man, who substituted for their vain superstitions the simple but sublime formula of belief, "There is but one sole God," in the space of less than a hundred years these people had overrun and conquered a great part of the then known world, which they held subject for several centuries, until, in their turn, they had to yield to more vigorous races. But wherever the Muslim gained footing, there his footprints are still to be seen; and the influence of the enlightened descendants of the first Arabian conquerors, who gave the nations the choice of the Qur’ān or the scimitar, remains in European arts, sciences, and literature to this day.
The early history of the Arabs, like that of other very ancient nations, is involved in great obscurity. Their country, or most part of it, seems from remote antiquity to have been called ‘Ariba, a name which it still retains. Regarding the origin of this name learned men differ in opinion. According to some, the name of ‘Ariba was derived from ‘Arba, a district of Tamana, where Ishmael dwelt; others say there was a town of this name in the neighbourhood of Makka. Tradition asserts that the name was derived from Ya‘ruh son of Qahtān, or Joktan, the grandson of Eber; while certain learned Hebraists would have it to be of Hebrew original, since the term araba in that language signifies west, and in the Scriptures the western part of the peninsula is called eretz arab, or ereb—the western country.
Ptolemy's division of Arabia into the "Stony," the "Desert," and the "Happy" was altogether unknown to the Arabs themselves. The best Oriental writers divide the peninsula into five provinces or kingdoms, namely: Yaman; Hijāz; Tahāma; Najd; and Yamāma. Of these the two first call for special notice.
The province of Yaman has always been famed for the fertility of its soil, and the mildness of its climate, which seems to realise the dreams of the poets in being a perpetual Spring. "The beauties of Yemen," says Sir W. Jones, are proved by the concurrent testimony of all travellers, by the descriptions of it in all the writings of Asia, and by the nature and situation of the country itself, which lies between the eleventh and fifteenth degrees of northern latitude, under a serene sky, and exposed to the most favourable influence of the sun: it is enclosed on one side by vast rocks and deserts, and defended on the other by a tempestuous sea; so that it seems to have been designed by Providence for the most secure as well as the most beautiful region of the East. Its principal cities are: Sanaa, usually considered as its metropolis; Zebîd, a commercial town, that lies in a large plain near the Sea of Omân; and Aden, surrounded with pleasant gardens and woods. It is observable that Aden, in the Eastern dialects, is precisely the same word with Eden, which we apply to the garden of Paradise. It has two senses, according to a slight difference in its pronunciation: its first meaning is, a settled abode; its second, delight, softness, or tranquillity. The word Eden had probably one of these senses in the sacred text, though we use it as a proper name. We may also observe that Yemen itself takes its name from a word which signifies verdure and felicity; for in those sultry climates, the freshness of the shade and the coolness of water are ideas almost inseparable from that of happiness; and this may be a reason why most of the Oriental nations agree in a tradition concerning a delightful spot where the first inhabitants of the earth were placed before their fall. The ancients, who gave the name of Eudaimon, or Happy, to this country, either meant to translate the word Yemen, or, more probably only alluded to the valuable spice trees and balsamic plants that grow in it, and, without speaking poetically, give a real perfume to the air." Such a charming land and climate may well be supposed to have been the seat of pastoral poetry; and, indeed, the best poets which ancient Arabia produced were those of Yaman.
The province of Hijāz is so named, either because it divides Najd from Tahama, or because it is surrounded by mountains. Its principal cities, Makka and Madīna, are most sacred in the estimation of every Muslim. Makka is the Qibla, or place in the direction of which Muslims everywhere turn their faces in prayer: it contains the Sacred Ka‘ba, or Cubical House,—the Baytu-’llāh, or House of God—whither flock unnumbered pilgrims from all parts of the world of Islām once every year; and the sacred well, Zem Zem—the self-same well, saith tradition, near which Hagar sat with her son Ishmael when she was comforted by the angel. Moreover, Makka is the birthplace of Muhammad. El-Madīna—"the city," emphatically—was called Yathrub before the Prophet retreated thither: it contains his tomb, which is, of course, also visited by the devout.
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