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16. Who Started Islam: Abraham or the Arabs?
Chapter 4. Who were the Arabs that started Islam?

4.2. Were all Arabians Arabs?

Today there are more than 400 million people who speak Arabic as their first language and Arabic is an official language in about 20 countries worldwide. However, when Islam as we know it today started, Arabic was only spoken by those living in the Arabian Peninsula. Who were these Arabians? Did all of them speak Arabic? Or were there differences in view of language and life style among these Arabians?

First of all, there was a distinction between the nomadic Arabs (baduw) and the sedentary Arabs (hadariy) in Arabia. Many Arab tribes lived as nomads or Bedouins moving from one place to another and living off their camels and their cattle. However, there were also quite a number of Arabs then, who lived in villages or town houses living on agriculture. Many of these were in Oases in the desert.

In addition, Muslims have distinguished Arabians according to these four categories:

a) Extinct Arabs (al-'arab al-ba'ida), i.e. Arabians, who were regarded by the Arabs that started Islam, as being true Arabs, but who no longer existed as a tribe or inhabitants of a town at the time, when Islam started in Arabia. Examples are the Thamud or the 'Ad, people mentioned in the Koran, who were destroyed by Allah.
b) True Arabs (al-'arab al-'ariba), i.e. those people who started the Arab language and culture. Many tribes in Arabia belonged to this category, when Islam began. Today it is viewed that most nomadic Arabs in Arabia belong to this group.
c) Arabized Arabs (al-'arab al-musta'riba or al-muta'arriba), i.e. those people, who have roots in other languages and cultures, but later acquired Arabic as their language and culture. Today most Arabs in the Arab world belong to this category, because their ancestors started out as e.g. Amazigh (Berber), or Egyptians (Copts), or Syrians (Arameans) and due to the conquests of the Arabian Arabs were then Arabized either peacefully or forcefully. The result is that their spoken Arabic dialects today contain many remnants of their original languages. But were there also Arabized Arabs at the time of Muhammad? We will come to this difficult question when trying to find out if Abraham and Ishmael were Arabs or not (see section 4.5. below). And finally,
d) Foreigners, i.e. Non-Arabs (al-'ajam), i.e. those Arabians who do not speak or identify with Arabic as their language and culture, rather with their own language. Examples are Roman or Persian slaves in Arabia at the time of Muhammad or non-Arabic languages, which were rooted in Arabia before the advent of Islam. It is difficult to assess how many such non-Arab languages were indigenous to Arabia at the time of Muhammad. Today there are six indigenous people groups in Arabia, whose native language is not Arabic. The largest of these are the Mehris, who today inhabit the border areas of Yemen and Oman in the region called Hadramawt, but some of them also live in Saudi Arabia. Around 170.000 Arabians speak Mehri as their primary language. Another example is the Jebbali (also called Shehri) language in Oman near the border to Yemen.
Here is an example of a text in the non-Arabic language Mehri spoken today in Arabia. For comparison we transliterate the same text in two other Semitic languages: Arabic and Hebrew, together with an English translation at the end. It is a verse from the Tawrat Musa (Torah of Moses) in Genesis 37:3. From these transliterations you can see that Mehri is not a dialect of Arabic or of Hebrew, but a language in its own right. We have underlined one and the same word in each of these four translations: in Mehri "ayjib", in Arabic "ahabba", in Hebrew "aahab", and in English "(he) loved".
MEHRI: Mah Israyil ayjib Yawsaf kathiir man baaqiy dehabunhah, dehah habrah deaqarah. Wusunaa hah dara'at mabnabbahat.
ARABIC: wa-ammaa Israaiil fa-ahabba Yusufa akthara min saa'iri baniyhi, li'annahu ibnu shaikhuukhatihi. fa-sana'a lahu qamiisan mulawwanan.
HEBREW: we-Yisraael aahab eth-Yooseeph mi-kkol baanaaw, kiy-ben-zequuniym huw loo. We-'aasaah loo kethooneth paasiym.
ENGLISH: Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors.

Seeing these differences among the Arabians of the time of Muhammad it is important to understand that the Arabs that started Islam were not a uniform or coherent group of people, rather various people groups were involved in the process of starting Islam even without looking at the differences in religion between them (Jews, Christians, Polytheists and Muslims). The reason behind this is that Muhammad by himself would not have been able to start Islam. He needed followers to establish the new way of life and faith we call Islam among them. His followers thus included members from different people groups and they indirectly also contributed to the genesis of Islam in that Muhammad's message had to be expressed in such a way that these people from different backgrounds would be able to make sense of what Muhammad preached to them and of what he expected from them. In other words, through this ethnic diversity among the earliest Muslims also non-Arabs were involved in starting Islam. This brings us to our next question.

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