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The contexts of the literary tradition

2) How or why is this reading useful to the way you think about Arabic culture?

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   
The contexts of the literary tradition
          
The Arab League, Arab nationalism; Arabic numerals, Arabic literature; the Arabian Peninsula, the Arabian Nights. The English language
makes use of several epithets to describe the people, language, and
region whose literary creativity is the topic of this book. The Arabic language itself, by contrast, has a single word, ¨arabı̄, an adjective derived
from what must be one of the earliest words in the history of the language, ¨arab, originally used to describe the nomadic peoples in the
central regions of what is now termed the Arabian Peninsula. Quite how
far back the existence of the ¨arab can be traced is difficult to say, but a
group called the ar-ba-a-a are cited as components of an army in cuneiform inscriptions dating from as early as   . At the end of the s
the same word, ¨arab, was used by Jamāl ¨Abd al-Nās·ir (Nasser), the
President of Egypt, when he proclaimed in a speech that ‘from the
Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Gulf we are Arabs’.
In this chapter I will provide a series of contexts that are intended to
serve as background for the investigations of the genres of Arabic literature that follow. Firstly I will discuss two particular contexts within
which the literary tradition has been created, developed, and recorded:
the physical and the linguistic. A more diachronic approach will then be
used for an overview of the historical background against which the literary texts were produced; it will be subdivided into two parts, a first that
looks at rulers and the changing patterns of authority, and a second that
examines some of the intellectual debates against the background of
which Arabic literature has been composed.
        
The pre-Islamic poet, Labı̄d, includes the following lines in the opening
section of his famous Mu¨allaqah poem:
An introduction to Arabic literature
Sites dung-stained and long abandoned after times of frequentation,
with their changing seasons of peace and war,
Fed with spring rains of the stars, hit by the thunder of a heavy
rainstorm or fine drizzle,
Falling from every passing cloud, looming dark in the daytime and with
thunder resounding at eventide.
The effect of rain on a desert environment is truly remarkable; the transformations that it brings about are immediate. While water – its presence or absence – was a very practical aspect of life within the desert
existence of the earliest poets, it has been a potent image for the modern
poet as well, one of fertility, of potential, of revolution. Labı̄d’s twentieth-century successor, the Iraqi poet, Badr Shākir al-Sayyāb (d.),
devotes a poem to rain (‘Unshūdat al-mat·ar’) which evokes the imagery of
the earliest poetry in the cause of his country’s liberation:
On the night of departure how many tears have we shed,
and then, for fear of reproach, pretended it was rain . . .
Rain . . .
Rain . . .
Since our childhood, the skies
were always cloudy in wintertime,
and rain poured down,
but every year, as the earth blossomed, we stayed hungry,
Never a year went by but there was hunger in Iraq.
Rain . . .
Rain . . .
Rain . . .
And, as desert-dwellers know only too well, water, this same essential,
life-giving resource, can also have a potent destructive force. The flashfloods of the wādı̄ (stream-valley) can bring sudden death, a fate that is
depicted with telling effect both at the conclusion of another Mu¨allaqah
poem from the earliest period of poetry, that of Imru’ al-Qays, and in
the fate of the hero’s mother in the novel, Nazı̄f al-h·ajar (The Rocks
Bleed, ) by the Libyan writer, Ibrāhı̄m al-Kūnı̄ (b. ).
The tension between these dualities of aridity and moisture, of death
and birth, has been a constant in the Arab world for the entire period
represented within these pages. The text of the Qur©ān itself shows an
obvious concern with the rigours of daily life in the way it depicts
Paradise as a well-watered garden. This struggle to survive in such a delicate ecological balance continues to affect the lives of people who live
in large areas of the Middle East and has a substantial effect on patterns
of homogeneity within particular areas and nations. Thus, a nation such
The contexts of the literary tradition
as Egypt, whose people cling to the fertile Nile Valley region, will tend
to possess a greater sense of identity than one like the Sudan or Algeria,
where geographical factors and sheer distances will serve to create real
and psychological barriers.
While the coastal regions of the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the
Indian Ocean, and the Gulf, have always served as a base for wide-scale
regional commerce, reflected in the famous Sindbad cycle from the
Thousand and One Nights, the seas of the Middle East do not appear to
have roused the interest of Arab littérateurs to any great extent. Perhaps
as is the case with English literature, it needed the concern of an islander,
the Sicilian ibn H
· amdı̄s (d. ) who later travelled to Spain, to produce
Arabic poetry depicting the sea. In the main, however, it is the land that
has served as a major means of identity for the Arab people; the fate of
the Palestinians, with their annual ‘Day of the Land’, is a potent contemporary symbol of that sentiment of long vintage.
The other primary geographical feature of the region is mountains.
Northern Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and the Maghrib, for example, possess
mountain ranges that have played a major role in the cultural life of their
people. Mountains are often akin to cultural breakwaters, in that they
can afford refuge to minority groups. The Atlas Mountains of the
Maghrib have served to create a large divide between those living on the
coastal plain and the mountain dwellers; in this case differences of language – Berber, French, and Arabic – only compound attitudinal
differences created by different means of subsistence (animal herding
and agriculture) and widely variant types of education and culture. In
Yemen and Lebanon, they have provided lines of separation between
different religious and political groupings, as twentieth-century conflicts
in both regions have convincingly demonstrated.
This wide expanse of territory that constitutes the Arab world, with
its variety of geographical and climatic features, is peopled by citizens of
many nations who speak Arabic and thus trace their linguistic and cultural origins back to the Arabian Peninsula. Many of the predominant
themes depicted in the literature of the pre-Islamic period – the power
of community, encampments, travels, horses, camels, palm-trees – continue to resonate in the minds of Arab littérateurs. The texts of the
Qur©ān and prophetic tradition (h·adı̄th) are filled with references to
the image of the palm-tree; the latter source enjoins mankind to ‘honour
the palm-tree which was created from Adam’s own clay’. Relics of this
aspect of the pre-Islamic way of life endure in colourful ways: the system
of metrics devised by the great scholar of al-Bas·rah, al-Khalı̄l ibn
An introduction to Arabic literature
Ah·mad (d. ), uses the term bayt (tent) for the line of poetry, and sabab
(tent-rope) and watad (tent-peg) for the segments of an individual foot.
The ancient virtue of ·sabr (tolerance of adversity, endurance) was often
invoked by the vagabond (s·u¨lūk) poets of the pre-Islamic period in their
taunts levelled at the ‘soft’ life of the tribe, and has since been cited often
to explain a willingness to ‘bide one’s time’: in the case of the Crusaders,
for example, who were eventually ejected after centuries of occupation.
Yet another such traditional virtue is that of hospitality, a quality that, as
any visitor to the Arab world knows, remains as prevalent and forceful
as ever.
When the great social historian, Ibn Khaldun (d. ), wrote the
Introduction (Muqaddimah) to his book of history, he proceeded to
develop a cyclical theory of civilisation that was based on the traditional
tribal virtues of the Bedouin, some of which we have just mentioned:
courage, endurance, and, above all, group solidarity. His model at the
time envisaged two elements – desert culture and civilisation, with the
former continually replacing and invigorating the latter. The growth of
cities in the Arab world, and especially the emergence of the great
Islamic centres – al-Bas·rah, Baghdād, Cairo, Qayrawān, Fez, and
Cordoba, for example – as sources of religious debate and intellectual
dynamism, was to have a major impact on both urban and provincial
life, frequently to the detriment of both. Cairo, the capital city of Egypt,
is perhaps the most extreme example of this, in that fully one quarter of
the inhabitants of the entire country live within the city’s boundaries.
But people still leave the countryside and pour into the cities; and this is
just one type of migration. The discovery of oil and the vast wealth that
it has brought to the countries of the Gulf region has led to the migration of huge numbers of workers in search of a living wage.
There are two particular ‘lenses’ through which the Western world
examines the Middle East that need to be identified; not so much to
avoid their use as to admit the limitations that they impose. The first
involves treating ‘the Arabs’ and ‘Islam’ as monoliths, and indeed often
to fuse the two into one. To be sure, the majority of Arabs are Muslims,
but there are significant communities of Arabs who are not – the
Maronites of Lebanon and the Copts of Egypt, for example. On the
other hand, many Muslims are not Arabs; Iranians, for example (whose
Persian language is a member of the Indo-European family), Pakistanis,
and large communities in Malaysia, Indonesia, and China. But, beyond
these points of information, there lies the assumption that the peoples of
a region as diverse in history and culture as the one that we have just
The contexts of the literary tradition
outlined can be described as a single, unified whole on the basis of their
being linked by a common language (in itself a problematic notion, as
we shall see below). The same principle can be applied to Islam, an
entity which the Western world has always found it convenient to treat
as a monolith in order to compensate for a failure to investigate its
variety. Perhaps we might suggest, adopting de Saussure’s well-known
categories, that Islam, like other faith systems, clearly stipulates what
constitutes its langue – the canonical texts that lay down the basis for its
principles, but that the parole, the actual application in such areas as the
difference between the tenets of the Sunnı̄ and Shı̄¨ı̄ communities and
the practices of Sufism and popular Islam, present us with a staggering
variety of beliefs and rituals which reflect the world-wide scope of the
The second ‘lens’ that I have been using is the term ‘Middle East’, an
American term that, along with the European ‘Near East’, reflects the
geographical location of those who coined it. Numerous scholars have
addressed themselves to the precise designation of this ‘region’, pointing
out as they do so that very few of the borders in the region were drawn
by its inhabitants. For some the Middle East is coterminous with ‘the
Fertile Crescent’, the ‘central lands’ of the region – Lebanon, Syria,
Jordan, Israel, Egypt. However, in academic terms departments that
carry the name ‘Middle East’ will teach not only Arabic, but also Persian
and Turkish (and often other languages as well), thus including within
their purview the broader definition of the Arab world represented by
not only ¨Abd al-Nās·ir’s Ocean-to-Gulf phrase, but also the Arab
nations represented at the United Nations and the Arab League. It is this
broader definition of the world of Arabic literature that will be intended
when the phrase ‘Middle East’ is used in this book; indeed, the need to
examine the literature of al-Andalus in the West and, on occasion, the
lands ‘beyond the river’ in the East require an even broader definition.
           
Arabic is a Semitic language, and is regarded by historical linguists as
the member of that family of languages that has preserved the largest
number of features of postulated proto-Semitic. It is the official language of a large number of nations in Africa and Asia: Morocco,
Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, the Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria,
Palestine, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, the
United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. These nations make up what is
An introduction to Arabic literature
known as the ‘Arab world’. The Arabic language also has official status
in Israel, and, because of continuing contacts across the desert regions
of North Africa, is used for communication in such states as Senegal,
Mauritania, and Chad. If we include within our purview the use of
Arabic as the canonical language of Islam, then the spread of nations
and peoples becomes enormous, incorporating Iran, Pakistan,
Bangladesh, Malaysia, Afghanistan, and Indonesia as Muslim countries,
and sizeable communities in many other countries, of which
Tadjhikistan, India, the Philippines, China, France, Britain, and the
United States are merely a representative sample. Arabic is also the
official language of the League of Arab States founded in Cairo in ,
and is one of the official languages of the United Nations.
Linguists term Arabic one of those languages that are ‘diglossic’, by
which they imply that its native-speakers will use different registers of
language according to the requirements of the social situation involved.
The first language of every native-speaker of Arabic will be one of a
number of colloquial dialects. That language will be used in the home
and in day-to-day communication between inhabitants of the dialect
area in question. As is the case with any language, there are of course
many sub-dialects within each country and region, but one may begin
by making a distinction on the broadest scale between the dialects of the
Maghrib (Libya and westward) and those of the Eastern countries.
Within the latter group the dialect of Cairo has, by dint of population
size and the widespread popularity of contemporary Egyptian media,
come to be regarded in the region (and among Western Arabists) as the
colloquial that is at least understood (if not spoken) by the largest
number of people. Other clusters of dialects include the ‘Levantine’
(Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria) and the Gulf (Saudi Arabia,
Iraq and the Arab Emirates).
The emergence of these dialects seems to have begun with the early
conquests of Islam. As the Muslim soldiers from different tribes of the
Arabian Peninsula congregated in the garrison cities of the border
regions (such as al-Kūfah, Fust·āt·, and Qayrawān), the practicalities of
day-to-day – not to mention, military – living demanded that their
different language systems be fused into a common medium of communication. To these changes implicit in the geographical diversity of the
Muslim community in the classical period has been added in the past
century and a half a further differentiating factor in the form of neologisms and technical terms culled from the lexica of Western languages,
initially Italian as a result of trade with Genoa and Venice, but later
The contexts of the literary tradition
French and English. Thus, the Lebanese word for a lorry or truck is
kamiyon while in Jordan the word is lūrı̄.
For the many inhabitants of the Arab world who receive little or no
education the colloquial dialect will be the only language they use to
communicate. While a number of television programmes will be broadcast in the colloquial dialect of the region, newspapers and televised
news bulletins use the ‘standard’ language which we will discuss below.
Because of the predominantly oral nature of the colloquial dialects we
possess little historical record either of their use in daily communication
or of the various types of entertainment that may have been performed
in them, but the demands of modern drama for realism on stage have
led not only to the performance of plays in the colloquial language but
also to the publication of some of the texts of those plays in printed
The colloquial dialect is then the first language of all native-speakers
of Arabic. Those who attend school and even proceed on to university
acquire as a second kind of Arabic language the written form of Arabic
that is standard throughout the Arab world and thus a major expression
of the Arab individual’s sense of identity and unity with his fellow Arabs.
While very early examples of the language are to be found in Assyrian,
Nabatean (first century   to fourth century  ), and Palmyrene (first
to third centuries ) sources, the great ideal for this standard Arabic
language is provided by the Qur©ān, regarded as the supreme and inimitable masterpiece of Arabic. The Qur©ān’s clear statement that it is ‘an
Arabic Qur©ān’ and that every sacred revelation comes to its people in
their own language initiated a movement of standardisation that, to a
remarkable degree, has preserved the classical patterns of standard
Arabic morphology and syntax. In the eighth and ninth centuries the
grammarians of al-Kūfah and al-Basr·ah set about sifting and recording
the principles of the language, and local variants that fell outside the
framework of such a system of ‘regularity’ were scrupulously noted, presumably so as to be avoided at all costs.
However, in spite of the availability and application of such powerful
conservative forces, the written Arabic language did undergo the natural
process of linguistic change. From the outset, some regions adopted the
language as their own mode of written communication: Egypt, Syria,
and Iraq, for example. Others adopted Arabic as part of the process of
conversion to Islam, but indigenous regional languages remained a powerful source of social cohesion – as with Berber in the Maghrib, for
example. Persian and Turkish later reassumed their positions as the
An introduction to Arabic literature
primary mode of cultural expression for their native speakers while
Arabic maintained its canonical status within those spheres (such as the
law) where the role of Islam retained its significance. Those inhabitants
of the conquered territories who converted to Islam brought to Arabic
several features of their own native languages, and this gradual process
of adaptation and change was accelerated by the translation movement
of the eighth and ninth centuries (discussed in more detail below)
whereby works from the Indo-Persian and Greek traditions were rendered into Arabic. As the intellectual centres of the expanding Islamic
community now became the bases for scholarship in a huge variety of
disciplines – for example, grammar, law, mathematics, astronomy, music,
philosophy, medicine, and literature – so did the Arabic language
become a clear, subtle and adaptive medium for recording a truly
remarkable tradition of learning.
While the great canonical Islamic works of the classical period of
Arabic learning show a remarkable degree of unanimity regarding the
appropriate level of discourse to be used, the different cultures gathered
together within the framework of Islam, the wide variety of subjects that
were the object of scholarly research, and the sheer passage of time
made it inevitable that elements of difference would also emerge in the
written language. However, the very regularising instincts of the grammatical tradition and our less than complete knowledge of some six centuries (twelfth to eighteenth) of Arabic linguistic history combine to
make it difficult to comment in detail on the effects on written Arabic
discourse of a period in which the dominance of other languages (particularly Ottoman Turkish) and the political fragmentation of the
Arabic-speaking regions seem to have served in several spheres to
narrow the gap separating the structures of the written language from
those of the colloquial dialects.
Whatever the case may be, the movement of cultural revival that followed contacts with the Western world in the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries found itself able to revive the classical tradition of language
and to reassert the primacy of its principles in the face of yet another
process of cultural and linguistic interchange, this time with the forces
of European colonialism. Such is the continuing immense prestige of
the standard language – the language of the Qur©ān and the classical
heritage of Arab-Islamic culture – that the morphology and syntax of
modern written Arabic show remarkably little change from those of the
classical written language. Organisations such as the Language
Academies of Damascus (founded in ) and Cairo (founded in )
The contexts of the literary tradition
have met with the somewhat equivocal success that characterises such
institutions everywhere in monitoring language change, most particularly in the lexical realm. Even so, the hallowed place accorded the standard written form of the language within the cultural mindset of the vast
majority of Arabic speakers today, whatever their nation, race, or religion, makes it a principal symbol of stability in a context of continual
Combining our discussion of these two types of language, the colloquial and the standard, we may suggest that a native-speaker of Arabic
operates along a spectrum that starts from a pole represented by the colloquial language. Those people who enter the educational system will
move along that spectrum towards the achievement of the status of an
educated person. Here the linguistic yardstick is the classical Arabic language and its current manifestation, often termed modern standard
Arabic. Quite apart from the chronological distinction implied by the
‘classical’ language of the cultural heritage and the ‘current’ (or
‘modern’), there are other distinct levels of language at this end of the
spectrum also: from discussions among educated people on the media,
to news bulletins, to official speeches and sermons, and to some types of
While linguists specialising in the study of Arabic may endeavour to
describe the language as it is used by its native-speakers, religion and cultural heritage combine to assign widely variant degrees of prestige to the
different types. We can begin by considering the terms themselves. Alfus··hā (or Al-lughah al-fus··hā) is in the form of a comparative adjective: it
implies ‘the language that is more correct’. The dialects by contrast are
called ¨āmmiyyāt (languages of the populace) or the less pejorative lughāt
dārijah (current languages). The attitudes implicit in these terms colour
the discussion of the cultural value of many modern literary genres,
most especially drama and fiction. They have also served to consign surviving texts of earlier popular literature to the realm of non-literature;
this includes the Thousand and One Nights itself, a work that was recorded
in a form of the written language that reflects the discourse practices of
story-telling rather than those of élite literature.
One of the features of Arabic which links it to the other Semitic languages is the basis of its lexicon on a series of consonantal patterns
usually called ‘roots’. Thus, the triconsonantal pattern K-T-B denotes
the semantic field of ‘writing’. KaTaBa means ‘he wrote’, KāTiBun (the
active participle) means ‘a writer, scribe, secretary’, maKTūBun (the
An introduction to Arabic literature
passive participle) means ‘written, fated’, maKTaBun (the noun of place)
means ‘desk, office’, Kitābun means ‘book’, KuTTāBun means ‘Qur©ān
school’, and so on.
This algebraic approach to language analysis also makes its way into
morphology. The consonantal structure of the verb F-¨-L (to do)
becomes the framework which can be used to illustrate the forms of
verbs and nouns; they being two of the three categories in Arabic
grammar, while the third is ‘particles’ – whatever is not a noun or verb.
Using once again the root pattern K-T-B I can say that KaTaBa (‘he
wrote’, also the basic morphological pattern for the verb) is of the
pattern Fa¨aLa while KāTiBun is of the pattern Fā¨iLun. When we turn to
the verb, we find that each example will have two basic time frames –
complete and incomplete, active and passive participles, and a gerund
(for example, QaTaLa, ‘he killed’; yaQTuLu, ‘he kills’; QāTiLun, ‘killer’;
maQTūLun, ‘killed’; QaTLun, ‘murder’).
Arabic has two types of sentence structure: the nominal sentence
which begins with a noun, and the verbal sentence which begins with a
verb. Using the two ‘stars’ of Arabic grammar sentences, ¨Amr and
Zayd, and their preferred verb, ‘to strike’, I can say: ¨Amrun D
· aRaBa
Amrun Zaydan, where the English translation of both
Zaydan and D
is ‘¨Amr struck Zayd’. The former is a nominal sentence; the assumption
behind the choice of this kind of sentence structure over a verbal sentence is that ¨Amr is to be the topic about whom a particular piece of
information is to be imparted.
The features of the Arabic language, its huge lexicon with a concomitant potential for enrichment and obfuscation, its repertoire of morphological transformations, its exultation in the sheer beauty of the sound
of words, these elements have served as the inspiration for generations
of littérateurs who have made virtuoso use of the potential it offers.
           
The breadth of the geographical space into which the Islamic dominions expanded is matched by the length of their recorded history. If we
adopt the year   – the beginning of the hijrah era marked by the
Prophet Muh·ammad’s ‘emigration’ from Mecca to Medina – as a point
of reference, then we are talking of some thirteen centuries. However,
this time frame also has to be extended backwards. In Chapter  I noted
The contexts of the literary tradition
the primary historical division that is created by the revelation of the
Qur©ān to Muh·ammad: between an Islamic period and a pre-Islamic
one, termed al-jāhiliyyah (the period of ignorance). However, as the
Muslim community began to realise the need to codify the Arabic language and to assess the accuracy of the memories of transmitters (the
Arabic term is ‘carriers’) of the Qur©ānic text, the pre-Islamic period
came to be regarded as a repository of information that was of extreme
value to the emerging scholarly communities in the fields of the Islamic
sciences. One of the most illustrious of the early historians, al-T·abarı̄ (d.
), begins his account with the story of the Creation and the Fall and
then uses a combination of biblical, pre-Islamic Arabian and Iranian
myths as a means of linking together received wisdom concerning the
earliest periods in the region that was brought together under the aegis
of Islam.
Pre-Islamic Arabia
The Arabian city of Mecca (Makkah) is set in the mountains to the east
of the Red Sea coast at approximately the halfway point between South
Arabia and the lands of the Fertile Crescent to the north. Mecca was a
thriving mercantile community, but it was also renowned for other
reasons. Close by were Mount ¨Arafāt, a traditional place of pilgrimage,
and the town of ¨Ukāz· which was the venue of a celebrated annual
poetry festival at which tribal poets would compete. Within the city of
Mecca itself was the Ka¨bah, a remarkable sanctuary enclosure that
served as the focus for the worship of a number of pagan deities. The
guardians of this shrine in the sixth century were the tribe of Quraysh.
Apart from cities such as Mecca, another kind of venue at which the
more sedentary tribes would cluster was the oasis, which, needless to say,
provided other opportunities for commercial activity. One such was the
town of Yathrib, some two hundred miles due north of Mecca. It was to
this town that Muh·ammad travelled in secret in . As it became the
centre of the new Muslim community, so did its name change to
Madı̄nat al-nabı̄ (the city of the Prophet), abbreviated to al-Madı̄nah or
The harsh terrain and climate of the central regions of the Peninsula
seem to have served for the most part as effective barriers to incursions
from the outside. To the north and east two tribal confederations served
as buffers between the peoples of the Peninsula and the two major
empires of the region. The Banū Ghassān fulfilled this function vis-à-vis
An introduction to Arabic literature
the Byzantine authorities based in Constantinople (now Istanbul), while
the Banū Lakhm operated from a capital at al-H
· ı̄rah in Southern Iraq in
their dealings with the Sasanian rulers of Persia.
                 
It was in the city of M
ecca that Muh·ammad received his first revelation
in about  . Following the death of his father, he had been taken
under the protection ofhis uncle,Abū T·ālib, and had successfully
engaged in trade on behalf of a wealthy widow, K
hadı̄jah, whose offer
of marriage he accepted. Following his custom of contemplating as he
wandered the hills near the city, he heard a voice that told him: ‘Recite
in the name of your Lord who created, created mankind from a bloodclot’ (Sūra ). This was to be the first of the revelations that he received
for the rest of his life and that were gathered together after his death as
the Qur©ān. When Muh·ammad began to preach his message – of a
transcendent God who passes judgement on sinners and of his own role
as a prophet – the reaction of the Meccans was one of antipathy to both
the content of the message and its implications for their way of life.
Following the death of both Abū T·¯lib
a and Khadı̄jah in , the situation of M
uh·ammad and his followers became progressively more difficult,
and in  he accepted the invitation aofgroup oftribal
leaders in the oasis of Yathrib to serve as arbiter in their dispute with
each other. This emigration (hijrah) is a major event in Islamic history in
that Muh·ammad’s arrival in Medina marks the beginning of the formation of the Muslim community that was soon to burst out of the Arabian
Peninsula and establish itself as a major world religion.

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