Arabian Knights: Part 1

Scott Farrell comments:

Typically we think of “chivalry” as associated strictly with the medieval culture of Christian Europe, yet as I often point out, the ideals and principles of the Code of Chivalry transcend the society that gave rise to them. You can find parallels to the Seven Knightly Virtues in the writings of Aristotle, in the teachings of Judaism, in the Vedic poetry of India and even in the principles of zen philosophy. So perhaps it’s not surprising to discover that chivalry has roots in the culture of the east — as Mr. Salloum points out, the noble and gentle ideals of chivalry were present among the Arabian desert warriors long before they flourished in the west.

His thought-provoking article reminds us that chivalry is not the exclusive property of one culture, one class or one religion; honor, compassion and dignity are universal, elemental aspects of human decency.

Muru’ah and the Code of Chivalry

If you want to live free from harm’s way
And in good fortune and honor,
Your tongue, if it utters something indecent, stop it and say,
“Oh tongue other people have tongues.”
If your eyes see something immoral, close them and say,
“Oh eyes other people have eyes.”
Practice beneficence and be magnanimous to ones who attack
And depart with that which is better.

— Al-Hewar

 

SalloumSo said Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafii, the founder of the Shafiite rite in Islam, when advising about life and its standards of honor. His words of advice were but a part of the continual Arab code of life since the beginning of time. They are part of the concept of chivalry which can be traced back to the Bedouin concept of al-furusiyyah (horsemanship) and muru’ah (manliness and honour) — principles akin to the European Code of Chivalry which includes courage, honor, loyalty and generosity.

Case in point: the chivalry of generosity. Hatim al-Tai, who lived in the 7th century and was made renowned by poets singing of his virtues, is said to have slaughtered his only remaining animal to feed a newly arrived guest is still remembered today for his generous act.

In the deserts of Arabia since time immemorial, a man in Arab dress, sword in the scabbard and spear in hand, riding his pure Arabian horse across the sands to do away with injustice and protect his womenfolk has always been the image of an Arabian chivalrous knight. Without doubt, it is a prototype of the medieval western “knight in shining armor.”

From long before the birth of Christ, chivalry in the Arabian Peninsula became recognized as a social institution. Before the advent of Islam, religion played no part in the evolution of this code of honor. In early Islam some poets exalted muru’ah above religion. However, in the ensuing years, religion began to play some role and chivalry became somewhat identified with Islam.

The Arabs are said to have been the first people to practice chivalry in their way of life and conflicts. Unlike those of other nations like the Greeks, Romans and Persians, Arab wars were usually fought for glory according a strict code of conduct and honor. They were fought fairly and, at most times, without treachery. Champions fought before both armies and battles often took place by appointment. As late as 1492 when the Christians captured Granada, the Muslim champions came out before the battle to challenge their Spanish counterparts.

Writing about these engagements, John Glubb, a modern British historian, writes:

The Arab nomads were passionate poets and every incident of these chivalrous encounters were immortalized in verse and recited every night around the campfires which flickered in the empty vastness of the desert peninsula.

Arabian chivalry was a code of ethics, life and social structure. It evolved to become synonymous with the quest for freedom and justice as well as a man fighting to the death for his womenfolk. During war, women often accompanied their men to battle, but they were usually stationed behind the lines. R.A. Nicholson in A Literary History of the Arabs quotes a verse by Amr ibn Ma’dikarib, a famous Arab poet who lived at the time of the Prophet Muhammad:

When I saw the hard earth hollowed,
By our women’s flying footprints,
And Lamis her face uncovered
Like the full moon in the skies,
Showing forth her hidden beauties
Then the matter was grim earnest:
I engaged their chief in combat,
Seeing help no other wise.

 

Protecting the good repute and honor of women, the knight’s harim (sanctuary), family and tribe was a basic requirement of an Arab knight. In pre- and early Islam, women were very important in society. They inspired the poet to sing and the warrior to fight. The women played a role comparable, to a great extent to the role the ladies were later to play in Western chivalry.

Renowned Arab knights such as Imru’uI al-Qays and Antar ibn Shadad al-Absi were not officially knighted as in Europe. They became knights by reputation of their courage, dignity, noble deeds and the pursuit of honor, through poetry, tales and legends. Incorporating generosity, forgiveness, and a just and honorable reputation as well as advocating justice and freedom, they became the treasure of their people, and a major aspect of Arab poetry. Pride of culture revolved around their adventures and feats.

The most common themes in Arab poetry were love, praise and insults. In their ballads, the poets helped foster the romantic spirit and, hence, furnished the setting for the rise of chivalry. As to honorable love, the Arabs are said to have been the first people to make romance in the unattainable sense, like courtly love, sighs and devotion to the untouchable beloved, a way of life.

Gustav Leabeon writes that Islam, in its early days, gave women exactly the position that European women would take centuries to achieve. Leabeon concludes that after the chivalry of Andalusia (Spain) filtered into Europe, courteous behavior towards women became the main theme of European chivalry.

Titus Burckhardt in Moorish Culture in Spain writes that the European chivalry of the Middle Ages was learned from the Spanish Moors. Burckhardt maintains that the glorification of women and the depiction of noble knights with their many virtues came about as a result of the impact of the Arab qualities in battles, literature and daily lives — characteristics not familiar in the world of Christendom (in the 7th through 10th centuries — ed.).

© 2005 Habeeb Salloum

This article has been reprinted by permission from the website of the Al-Hewar Center for Arab Culture and Dialogue, and may not be reproduced in any format without express permission of the author.

Books referenced in this article:

Also in Arabian Knights

  1. Arabian Knights: Part 2
  2. Arabian Knights: Part 1

View the entire series