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History of the Arabs

Updated on May 2, 2009

Three important issues which concern the Arab world today are how best to use the money earned from the sale of oil, how Islam and the modern world can live together, and how the conflict with Israel can be resolved.

The Arabs were the first people to believe in the teaching of Mohammed, who lived from A.D. 570 to 632. They called themselves muslims, which means "those who have given in to the will of God". They were filled with so much enthusiasm for their new faith that they wanted to conquer as much of the world as possible, and force other peoples to accept the faith as well. They conquered many countries and made a great empire. On the death of Mohammed a group of his followers elected a successor, or Caliph, who ruled from Damascus in Syria. In 750 this caliphate was overthrown by another which made Baghdad in Iraq its capital.

The Arabs were brave and ruthless soldiers, but they also loved art and learning. In the reign of the Caliph Harun al-Rashid, from 786 to 809, the capital city of Baghdad had a university which was well known throughout Europe and the East. All the arts and sciences were studied there, particularly architecture, astronomy, medicine and mathematics. The system of numbers which we have today was brought to Europe by the Arabs, who also gave us the word for algebra. There was much art and learning, too, in Arab cities in the countries they had conquered, such as Cairo in Egypt and Cordoba in Spain.

The vast lands conquered by the Arabs did not remain part of a single empire for long. Rival caliphates were set up in Egypt and Spain and in 1258 the Baghdad Caliphate itself was overthrown by Mongols from central Asia. In the 11th century the Christian countries of Europe began a series of invasions, known as the Crusades, of Syria and Palestine, to secure an "open door" to the Holy Land. Although they set up kingdoms which lasted nearly a hundred years they were finally defeated and expelled. The Crusades increased trade between Europe and the Arab lands and helped to spread the knowledge of Arab arts and sciences.

In the 15th century a new power arose in Asia Minor, the Ottoman Turks. Within a hundred years nearly all the Arab peoples had become subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Only Morocco and parts of Arabia remained outside Ottoman control. At its height the Ottoman Empire rivalled the power of all the Christian states of the west. But it failed to match the technical and economic progress of Europe and one by one it lost its Arab provinces to the European powers. During the 19th century Britain established control all along the southern and eastern shores of Arabia and later occupied Egypt. France took Algeria and Tunisia. By 1914 France and Spain had occupied Morocco while Libya had become an Italian colony. All that remained of Turkey's Arab Empire was Syria (including Lebanon and Palestine), Iraq and parts of Arabia.

When Turkey joined with Germany as an ally in World War I, the British encouraged the Arabs to revolt under the leadership of the Sherif Hussein, the keeper of the Holy Places of Islam. With the help of some British officers such as Colonel T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) the Arabs played an important part in the defeat of the Turks in 1918 which meant the end and the division of the Ottoman Empire. After the wars the Arabs felt they had been let down, because, instead of being independent they were placed under the mandate (trusteeship) of Britain and France. Also they feared the consequences of the promise made by Britain to the Jewish people to help set up a national home for them in Palestine. The Arabs regarded Palestine as an Arab land.

Over the next 50 years the Arab states gained their independence one by one. Most of them have joined a loose union which is the League of Arab States. They are united by their common language, culture and history but although they have a strong attraction towards the idea of uniting all the Arabs under one government, there are many practical obstacles to this goal.

Three important issues which concern the Arab world today are how best to use the money earned from the sale of oil (which has made some Arab states immensely rich); how Islam and the modern world can live together; and how the conflict with Israel can be resolved.


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