Bedouins
(al-aʿrāb)

Gibril Fouad Haddad

The Qurʾān refers to Bedouins or nomadic desert Arabs thirteen times, using two different terms: (i) the plural noun aʿrāb (Q 9:90, 97-99, 101, 120; 33:20; 48:11, 16; 49:14) (sing. aʿrābī, pl. of the plural aʿārīb); and (ii) the collective singular noun and nominal verb badw (Q 12:100), the active participle used as a noun bād (Q 22:25), and its plural bādūn (Q 33:20).

Definitions and Usage

aʿrāb is derived from the root ʿ-r-b, which also gives rise to the generic collective two-gendered noun ʿarab (sing. ʿarabī) (to which corresponds the English word “Arab”), which originally denotes clarity of expression and articulateness (al-ibāna wal-ifṣāḥ)—as opposed to the collective ʿajam, which denotes “foreign, incapable of correct speech” and is translated mostly as “non-Arab”—because, writes Ibn Fāris (d. 395/1005), “their tongue is the most expressive tongue (aʿrab al-alsina) and their idiom the best idiom (ajwad al-bayān).” The adjectival substantive ʿarabī usually refers to the sedentary townspeople, but occurs in the Qurʾān only as an adjective in reference to language, not people, although the Qurʾān does refer to the Arab nation by the plural noun ummiyyīn (see ArabicUnlettered) (Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs, sub ʿ-r-b; Qurṭubī and Nasafī, Tafsīrs, sub Q 9:97).

badw is derived from the root b-d-w, yielding the verb badā, “to present itself” the way an object protrudes and stands out against a uniform desert background, al-bādiya: literally, the place where things appear in plain sight as opposed to al-ḥaḍar, the place of sedentariness (Azharī, Tahdhīb; al-Fārābī, Dīwān al-adab; Farāhīdī, ʿAyn; Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs; and Jawharī, Ṣiḥāḥ, all sub ʿ-r-b; Rāghib, Mufradāt, sub b-d-ā; Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 33:20). The English substantive and adjective bedouin is a Middle English development from the Old French beduin from the Arabic bedaoui or the nominative plural badwiyyūn (Shorter OED, Littré), whence the nisba (affiliation) and modern family name al-Badawī, also found among some non-Arabs.


The First Arabs

The origins of the Bedouins blend with those of the Arabs, since all those famed as the primogenitors of the latter and founders of their language were also said to be desert-dwelling nomads:

“Sām was the forebear of the Arabs, Yāfith the forebear of the Romans (al-Rūm), and Ḥām the forebear of the Abyssinians (al-Ḥabasha),” said the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace (Tirmidhī, Manāqib, faḍl al-ʿArab, rated ḥasan); “al-Aṣfar [the blond] b. al-Rūm b. ʿĪṣaw [Esau] b. Isḥāq b. Ibrāhīm… ʿAdī b. Zayd al-ʿIbādī (d. 600ce) said: ‘the Banū al-Aṣfar are the kings of the Rūm of whom none remains today’” (ʿAynī, ʿUmda, 1:81);

Yaʿrub b. Qaḥṭān b. Hūd b. ʿĀbir b. Shālikh b. Arfakhshad b. Sām b. Nūḥ, “the first speaker of Arabic and father of all the Yemen” according to genealogists (Abū Ḥayyān, Baḥr, sub Q 7:65);

Jurhum, whose language is meant by the phrase in plain Arabic speech (Q 26:195) according to the exegetes on the basis of a saying of the Companion Burayda al-Aslamī (Ḥākim, Tafsīr, Ḥa Mīm al-Sajda; al-Bayhaqī, Shuʿab, at the very end of Branch 15);

the Prophet Ismāʿīl—upon him peace—according to two hadiths: “The first whose tongue was uncleft (futiqa lisānuh) with distinct Arabic was Ismāʿīl when he was ten years old” (al-Zubayr b. Bakkār in al-Nasab with a fair chain of transmission according to Ibn Ḥajar in Fatḥ al-bārī, Aḥādīth al-Anbiyāʾ, qawl Allāh taʿālā wa-ttakhadha Allāhu Ibrāhīma khalīlā; Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:31);

“Ismāʿīl received this language purely through inspiration” (Ḥākim, Tafsīr, Ḥa mīm al-Sajda, sub Q 41:3: A scripture whereof the verses are expounded, an exposition in Arabic for people who have knowledge, with a weak chain). The aboriginal Arabs (al-ʿArab al-ʿarbāʾ and al-ʿāriba) are distinguished from the “Arabized Arabs” (al-ʿArab al-mustaʿriba and al-mutaʿarriba)—a twofold distinction sometimes used to characterize, respectively, the speakers of Yaʿrub b. Qaḥṭān’s old tongue and the speakers of the Ḥijāzī dialects inherited from the Prophet Ismāʿīl (Baṣmajī, Muʿjam, sub al-Aʿrāb).

Ismāʿīl’s offspring who flourished in the area of the Tihāma valley known as ʿAraba, which became Makka. Among them is the ancestral line of the Quraysh leading up to the Prophet Ismāʿīl through Muḍar b. Nizār b. Maʿadd (“tough”) b. ʿAdnān (“resident”). All of them, like Yaʿrub (“speaks most clearly”) and Qaḥṭān (“hard”), are eponyms of the race, ethos, and eloquence of the Arabs, as illustrated in the exegete Nāṣir al-Dīn ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿUmar al-Bayḍāwī’s (d. 708?/1308?) preamble to his Tafsīr:

Glory to Allah Who sent down the Criterion upon His slave for him to be a warner to the worlds (Q 25:1)! He challenged, with the shortest of its suras, the champions of eloquence among the pure-blooded Arabs and found none capable of response. He confuted those who set out to oppose it, among the orators of ʿAdnān and declaimers of Qaḥṭān, until they thought they had been completely bewitched. (Tafsīr, Exordium; cf. Ibn Durayd, Ishtiqāq p. 5, 31, 217, 361)


The Prophet Yaʿqūb and the Retreat to Nomadism

The Qurʾān mentions that the father and brothers of the Prophet Yūsuf (upon them peace) came from the desert: And he raised his parents on the dais and they fell down before him prostrate, and he said: O my father, this is the interpretation of my dream of old. My Lord has made it true, and He has shown me kindness, since He took me out of prison and has brought you from the desert (al-badw)… (Q 12:100) al-Qurṭubī (d. 671/1273) said:

It is narrated that Yaʿqūb’s dwelling was in the land of Canaan and that they were people of livestock and lived in the wild. It was also said that Yaʿqūb had moved to a desert land (taḥawwala ilā bādiya) and lived there, and that Allah never sent forth a prophet originating from the desert people. It was also said he had gone out to Badā, a place… One says badā al-qawmu badwan when they come to Badā, just as one says ghārū ghawran, meaning, they came to al-Ghawr. The meaning would then be: He brought you from the place called Badā. Al-Qushayrī mentions this. (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 12:100)

It is in that sense of withdrawing to the desert that the Qurʾān describes the hypocrites of Madīna as hankering timorously after the safety of desert life—although they considered nomadism distasteful and beneath the luxurious living and status to which they were accustomed—instead of having to fight with the Muslims at the time of the Confederates’ onslaught: they would rather be in the desert with the wandering Arabs (bādūn fī-l-Aʿrāb), asking for news of you; and if they were among you, they would not fight, save a little (Q 33:20).


The Praise and Criticism of Bedouins

The Qurʾān denounces desert Arabs as more prone to unbelief and hypocrisy than others: The Arabs of the desert (al-aʿrābu) are worse in unbelief and hypocrisy, and apter not to know the bounds of what Allah has sent down on His Messenger (Q 9:97)—meaning specifically Asad, Ghaṭafān, and the desert Arabs surrounding Madīna (Samarqandī, Baḥr). Acccording to the commentators, the reason was that the townspeople were directly exposed to the Qurʾān, the Sunna, and the proofs of the Religion as well as mingled with a community of knowledge, wisdom, goodness, mercy, and love, unlike the desert dwellers, who were generally coarse, hard-hearted, beastly, leaderless, and characterized by ignorance; hence Allah Most High never selected any Messenger from among the latter (Ālūsī, Rūḥ; Baghawī, Bayḍāwī, Ibn Kathīr, Rāzī, and Ṭabarī, Tafsīrs; Māturīdī, Taʾwīlāt; Māwardī, Nukat; Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf; etc., sub Q 9:97) (see variously Avarice and Greed; Boundaries of Allah; Deceit and Delusion; Doubt; Hypocrisy and Hypocrites). The next two verses cite avarice, unbelief, and deceit but also the fact that while these negative traits characterize some Bedouins, others possess excellent qualities:

And among the wandering Arabs (al-aʿrābi) there is he who takes what he spends [for the cause of Allah] as a loss, and awaits [evil] turns of fortune for you. The evil turn of fortune will be theirs. Allah is Hearer, Knower. And among the wandering Arabs (al-aʿrābi) there is he who believes in Allah and the Last Day, and takes that which he spends and the prayers of the Messenger as acceptable offerings for them in the sight of Allah. Indeed it is an acceptable offering for them. Allah will bring them into His mercy. (Q 9:98-99)

Desert life and peoples were generally deemed morally superior to townspeople (see City), and more courageous (Ibn Khaldūn, Muqaddima pp. 151-154, §2: fī-l-ʿumrān al-badawī wal-umam al-waḥshiyya, §4: fī anna ahl al-badw aqrab ilā al-khayr min ahl al-ḥaḍar; §5: fī anna ahl al-badw aqrab ilā al-shajāʿa min ahl al-ḥaḍar). However, because emigration (see Hijra) to the Prophet in Madina became synonymous with the abandonment of unbelief and the embrace of Islam, post-Hijra nomadism came to connote estrangement from Islam; thus the adoption of desert life (taʿarrub) after Emigration was considered one of the seven gravest enormities and equivalent to apostasy (Abū Ḥayyān, Baḥr; Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar; Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Ṭabarī, and Rāzī, Tafsīrs, sub Q 4:31 and 47:25). “If the aʿrābī is called ‘O ʿarabī!’ he will rejoice, but if the ʿarabī is called, ‘O aʿrābī!’ he will be angry” (Azharī, Tahdhīb, sub ʿ-r-b).

Since that blessed first community was soon to disappear, the Prophet nevertheless permitted desert life in times of strife (Bukhārī, Fitan, al-taʿarrub fīl-fitna; Muslim, Imāra, taḥrīm rujūʿ al-muhājir ilā istīṭān waṭanih). The following report sums up both aspects of the question:

Shihāb b. Mudlij took up life in the desert. One day his son insulted a man, who retorted, “You son of him who went back to desert life after Emigration!” after which Shihāb came to Madina. There, he met Abū Hurayra and heard him narrate [this ḥadīth]: “The Messenger of Allah—upon him blessings and peace—said, ‘The best of people are two types: a man who went out on an expedition for the Cause of Allah, alighting in a place where he could hound the enemy; and a man in a desert region who establishes the five prayers, pays the due owed on his property, and worships his Lord until the Final Certainty (yaqīn) comes to him (i.e. until he dies, cf. Q 15:99).’” Hearing this, Shihāb fell to his knees and asked repeatedly, “Did you hear this from the Messenger of Allah, Abū Hurayra?”, to which the latter said “Yes”. After that, Shihāb went back to his desert area and lived there. (Aḥmad 16:446 §10766, Bāqī musnad al-mukthirīn, bāqī al-musnad al-sābiq)


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See also

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