By Habeeb Salloum
March 15, 2017
“If you want to live free from harm’s way
And in good fortune and honour,
Your tongue, if it utters something indecent, stops 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.”
So said Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi’i, the founder of the Shafi’ite rite in Islam, when advising about life and its standards of honour. 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, honour, 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 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 proto-type 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 evolvement of this code of honour. 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 honour. 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 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 honour of women – the knight’s harem (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 honour, through poetry, tales and legends. Incorporating generosity, forgiveness, and a just and honourable repute 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 honourable 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 filtered into Europe, courteous behaviour 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.
The ethical and romantic characteristic of Al-Furusiyyah Al-Arabiya (Arabian chivalry), as practiced in the Arabian Peninsula, evolved and spread with the Muslim expansion. During the Arab era in the Iberian Peninsula and the years of the Crusades, chivalry with all its attributes was transferred to Western Europe. An important Arab contribution to Western medieval society, its origin has been virtually ignored by Western historians.
Romantic chivalry as pursued in medieval Europe is nothing more than the continuation of Al-Furusiyyah Al-‘Arabiya. Abanese, a Spanish writer wrote that Europe had not known knighthood, its, arts and practices before the arrival to Andalusia of Arabs with their knights and heroes. A logical hypothesis in that chivalry had not been known to the Greeks and Romans. This offshoot of the chivalrous life of the Arab and Muslim conquerors in the Iberian Peninsula, both in theory and manner was never outdone by the European Christian
It is said that chivalry was the most prominent characteristic of the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula. To all Arabs in that era, to become a genuine Faris (knight), a man had to attain attributes of dignity, eloquence, gentleness, horsemanship, physical strength, poetic talent and mastery in the bow and arrow, spear and sword. These virtues were transferred by way of the Iberian Peninsula to the remainder of Europe. Romantic Hispano-Arabic literary forms, such as the love songs of the Muwashshah form, were forerunners to the songs of the troubadours which gave birth to medieval knighthood and the age of chivalry.
A historian once wrote that the genius of the Arabs was poetic and their songsters in the Iberian Peninsula outnumbered those of all other peoples put together. El-Cid, who was greatly influenced by Moorish culture, especially its poetry, composed a poem which is the oldest and finest ballad of medieval Spanish verse and is said to have given birth to the songs of chivalry in Christian Spain.
While some of Arabic poetry was sensual and pleasure-seeking, it was the romantic components that were adopted by the Provençal Troubadours from the Arab courts in Andalusia. This poetic genre combined with the Christian honour to the Virgin Mary was behind a good part of the medieval concept of chivalry.
European chivalry also gained much from contact with the Arabs during the Crusades. From among the many incidents during these long conflicts are those which relate to Saladin and which become renowned. To the Europeans, Saladin was the perfect example of cultured chivalry. When the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099, they slaughtered virtually all the inhabitants. However, when Saladin, well-known for his kindness to prisoners taken in battle, re-took the city in 1187, he spared his victims, giving them safe passage to leave.
Despite his fierce opposition to the Crusading powers, Saladin achieved a great reputation in Europe as a chivalrous knight. When his foe Richard the Lion Hearted, leader of the Christian armies, became sick, he sent his personal physician to heal him. There is no doubt that the Crusaders learned from him a great deal about chivalry. During the 14th century, an epic poem about Saladin was circulated in Europe and Dante included him among the virtuous pagan souls in Limbo.
When one reads today of the nobility of a knight in shining armour rushing to rescue a maiden in distress, it is well to remember that behind the nobility of his act are the Arabs who laid the basis of his action. Perhaps, no one has described the impact of Arab al-Furusiyyah and Muru’ah on European chivalry better than R.A. Nicholson who writes:
“The chivalry of the Middle Ages is, perhaps, ultimately traceable to heathen Arabia. ‘Knight-errantry, the riding forth on horseback in search of adventures, the rescue of captive maidens, the succour rendered everywhere to women in adversity – all these were essentially Arabian ideas, as was the very name of chivalry, the connection of honorable conduct with the horse-rider, the man of noble blood, the cavalier…But the nobility of the women is not only reflected in the heroism and devotion of the men; it stands recorded in song, in legend and in history.”
Chivalry began in a secular Arabia where the tribal code of honour with all its ramifications was the basis of right and wrong. Heroes were those who exemplified the characteristics of the chivalrous attributes in that society. It was so important that as Islam enveloped the area, it remained part of the new social order of life and continued as part of the human code of life with the conquests of new territory. As such, chivalry became part of the many Arab contributions to the West.