Posted by: ken98 | September 3, 2012

Doing the Dozens in Pre-Islamic Arabia, Confusing Contrarians, and An Enlightened View of Mecca

Day 1088 – Ken here (M)(9-3-2012)
(DEF III, v.5, Ch.50, pp.160-170)(pages read: 2200)

The Namibian desert - a very dry place

This is actually the Namibian desert, not the Arabian - a very dry place - but it symbolizes the amount of historical interest (which in this case would be metaphorical humidity) this chapter is providing me, thus far - a very dry chapter

Again, this is a little bit out of order – an inability on my part to coordinate my blog-scheduling properly.

Not feeling so well today, not the best, but still determined to plod on, slogging through this Gibbonian travelogue chapter on the Arabian peninsula.

And not much to go on yet, we’re still in travel-pamphlet land – mainly Gibbon’s “impressions” of Arabia and Arabs garnered from his reading. Rather than history this could be titled “There’s More to Those People That Dress in Those Long Robes Than You Thought, Some Observations on the Arabs and Islam.”

Actually it’s not all that bad – it’s entirely refreshing and cutting-edge for the 18th cent. to have a historian review geographical, climatic, societal, and cultural values of a region/people before reviewing history, so I guess I shouldn’t be so hard on him. It’s just that MOSTLY, again, these shed MORE LIGHT on the GIBBON’S VIEWS of the world, than they do of the world it proposes to explain (that of the Arabs). But I guess we’ll take what we can get – it’s 2 and a quarter centuries old – that it’s mostly out of date and mostly irrelevant is not its fault. It makes it a little harder to read, but all the more interesting to have read it.


Continuing with the Arab/Muslim world (this and the next 2 chapters), Gibbon gives an introduction to the Arab people, their character, wars, societal structure, poetry, generosity, hospitality – then goes on to discuss the “time of ignorance” before Muhammad – the religion, idolatry, Kaaba, and the rites of idolatrous Mecca.

The Story
Character of the Arabs
  • Patriarchal, governed by oratory
  • Emphasis – like classical societies, like Medici in Florence – by wisdom, integrity
  • Freedom of the individual paramount – more so than the corrupt Greeks and Romans
  • Dishonor worse than death

    Civil Wars, Private Revenge – pre-Muhammad
  • Constant war
  • Revenge and vendettas constant
  • Annual Truce for 4 months

    Arab Society – pre-Muhammad
  • Felt justified in raiding
  • Very interested in Trade and Literature
  • Centered around Mecca (idolatrous Mecca)
  • Love of Poetry – the 7 “Hung” poems – golden poems carved and hung in Mecca
  • Generosity and hospitality proverbial
  • NOTE (KEN): this is a common theme of many many peoples of Asia/Europe (ex. the Scandinavians, Germans, Irish, Ancient Greeks (Mycenae) etc) – emphasis on hospitality, poetry, generosity, war, raiding, revenge and vendetta common – so not exactly a unique quality to the Arabs

    Mecca, Kaaba, Idolatrous (Time of Ignorance) Pre-Muhammed Arabs
  • Worship of heavenly bodies
  • Kaaba exists as a pilgrimage center at Mecca
  • Gibbon describes the Kaaba, the well of ZemZem, etc
  • Gibbon makes the point that the ceremonies of Islam pre-date Muhammad
  • Sacrifices – Gibbon mentions sacrifices, some human – with the Arabs, Romans, Greeks, etc – also the rite of not eating pork and of circumcision
  • He ventures the opinion that Muhammad practiced these, NOT as holy commandments, but as FAMILIAR HABITS that afterwards became HOLY REQUIREMENTS – a very Enlightenment view – a “natural” source for “supernatural” wisdom

    Photo of man from the United Arab Emirates

    Photo of man from the United Arab Emirates - Gibbon records the ancient war cry of the attacking Arab - it includes undressing and the victim's aunt - very strange


    Quotable Gibbon – the Ancient Yo Mama!


    The Strangest War Cry Ever Recorded

    Where does he get this stuff? Is he pulling our leg? (probably not).

    I have in vain tried to find the source of this war cry. It might be Pliny the Gibbon prose is vague to say the least. Gibbon gives no reference, no footnote – which is unusual – not even to the passing reference to Pliny.

    It all sounds more like someone doing the dozens on a playground (“your mama wears army boots”) than something a grown man would yell before he chopped you to pieces. It’s also kind of long and involved (it must be shorter and cleaner and without parentheses in pure classical Arabic). I guess the insult is 1) you have to undress, 2)I’m sleeping with your father’s/mother’s sister. It all sounds very involved, somewhat unlikely. Maybe it was all in Gibbon’s head. Who knows?

    Anyways… here is Gibbon, addressing his English gentlemen, explaining how attacks are conducted by Arabs upon meeting a lone traveler in the desert:

    They (the Arabs) pretend, that, in the division of the earth, the rich and fertile climates were assigned to the other branches of the human family; and that the posterity of the outlaw Ismael might recover, by fraud or force, the portion of inheritance of which he had been unjustly deprived.

    According to the remark of Pliny, the Arabian tribes are equally addicted to theft and merchandise; the caravans that traverse the desert are ransomed or pillaged; and their neighbours, since the remote times of Job and Sesostris, have been the victims of their rapacious spirit.

    If a Bedoween discovers from afar a solitary traveller, he rides furiously against him, crying, with a loud voice, “Undress thyself, thy aunt (my wife) is without a garment.” A ready submission entitles him to mercy; resistance will provoke the aggressor, and his own blood must expiate the blood which he presumes to shed in legitimate defence.

    (DEF III, vol.5, ch.50, p.162)

    Last Word…


    The subtext under every Contrarian premise - being contrary = happiness by definition

    The subtext under every Contrarian premise - being contrary = happiness by definition

    Gibbon and Contrarians

    Gibbon is above all else, a CONTRARIAN. But unlike the careful definition in WIKI (contrarians are people disagreeing with the majority-i.e. rebels or dissenters), I have to say that the the article sidesteps the obvious difference between a contrarian stance on political issues and a contrarian stance on, let’s say the fundamental physics of the universe – one is a legitimate difference of opinion, the other could get you killed if a “contrarian” were responsible for maintaining your aircraft.

    The real irritation for me, is that often “contrarians” are the exact equivalent of that loud, obnoxious guy in the back of your math class in high school, desperate for attention and getting some “play”, willing to say or do anything to get it. It is pure rhetoric, without a basis in fact and provides (like the Jerry Springer show) a blast of hormonal excitement to the audience’s combined Endocrinol system – which is all O.K. – again, as long as it doesn’t involve any moral or physical equivalent to aeronautical repairs. It has nothing to do with TRUTH, it is pure TITILLATION. And that just seems irresponsible to me. But maybe that’s just my bête noire.

    And what does it have to do with Gibbon?

    Well, it’s finally hit me today (right at the point where Gibbon was denigrating Roma and Greece and praising the primitive but pristine Arab FREEDOM)

    On solemn occasions they convened the assembly of the people; and, since mankind must be either compelled or persuaded to obey, the use and reputation of oratory among the ancient Arabs is the clearest evidence of public freedom. But their simple freedom was of a very different cast from the nice and artificial machinery of the Greek and Roman republics, in which each member possessed an undivided share of the civil and political rights of the community.

    In the more simple state of the Arabs, the nation is free, because each of her sons disdains a base submission to the will of a master. His breast is fortified by the austere virtues of courage, patience, and sobriety; the love of independence prompts him to exercise the habits of self-command; and the fear of dishonour guards him from the meaner apprehension of pain, of danger, and of death. The gravity and firmness of the mind is conspicuous in his outward demeanour; his speech is low, weighty, and concise; he is seldom provoked to laughter; his only gesture is that of stroking his beard, the venerable symbol of manhood; and the sense of his own importance teaches him to accost his equals without levity, and his superiors without awe.

    The liberty of the Saracens survived their conquests: the first caliphs indulged the bold and familiar language of their subjects; they ascended the pulpit to persuade and edify the congregation; nor was it before the seat of empire was removed to the Tigris, that the Abbasides adopted the proud and pompous ceremonial of the Persian and Byzantine courts.

    (DEF III, vol.5, ch.50, p.112)

    Much of Gibbon’s AVERSIONS are partially “calculated” to shock the sensibilities of his compatriots – gently-bred Englishmen of the late 18th century. He is, occasionally, contrarian. And it’s hard sometimes to tell if he really believes what he’s writing, or he’s writing what will shock and get attention. He, after all, has a subscription (readers who have subscribed to his 6 volume work on the Decline and Fall) to satisfy.

    His loathing of monks, eunuchs (well, the eunuchs part was probably not contrarian), anti-christian attitudes, and here in this chapter, his almost unadulterated PRAISE of ARABS/MUSLIMS, (who were, by the way, still very active via the Turks in challenging Christianity in the 1780’s) was NOT the party line for men of his generation. They were foreigners, Saracens, unbelievers, and considered primitive. Gibbon goes out of his way to combat each of those points.

    You can just see him at a salon dropping these bombshells with a knowing, civilized, eminently reasonable smile and watching the results as the shock waves spread throughout the room. Or didn’t spread. Either way, he was guaranteed of attention – even bad press is good exposure – and to me, that is the soul of the “contrarian” – not the truth of the conjecture, but the level of electric “famous-ness” (or fame for the more fastidious) it generates. Attention and fame is the goal of being contrary. And sometimes Gibbon seems to be guilty of it.

    Of course, after all is said and done, the beauty of being a Contrarian (besides the VISIBILITY) is that SOMETIMES when all the other sheep are moving one direction, you can go innocently in the other direction and make a killing (ex. Contrarian investing). This is probably the source of much of the positive spin put on being Contrarian in the 21st century. Somehow it’s the attitude of winners. I imagine it’s kind of like the bug for gambling (a penchant I am fortunately free of, or I’d be even more poor/less rich than I am right now) – the logic being: if you’re CONTRARY enough times, one of these times you’ll HIT THE JACKPOT when you swerve left as everyone else swerves right. Besides being a rebel and disagreeing with everyone is just plain fun. Like I said even if it involves natural laws and physics. I guess it’s all fun until you poke someone’s eyes out and someone gets hurt.

    Man! I’m irritiable today! A lack of content in the daily 10 page reading of Gibbon just brings that out in me

    Anyways… whine, whine, complain, complain, blah, blah, blah! (I promise I’ll try and do better)

    And thus endeth the rant for today.

    A Contrarian's view of the world - clearly observable difference - and obviously clearly observable FAME

    A Contrarian's view of the world - clearly observable difference - and obviously clearly observable FAME

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