Some Aspects of the Arab Bedouins in the Prophet’s Time

By Alwi Alatas


Several years ago when Malaysia was led by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, or commonly called Pak Lah, he launched a program called Islam Hadhari, or Civilizational Islam (Islam yang bertamadun). Some people, perhaps, may smile when notice an interesting coincidence how Islam Hadhari has been promoted by a man named Badawi.

In Arabic, badawī means Bedouin, rural, and nomadic (Wehr, 1966: 47). The person called Bedouins, whose behavior and ways of life different from the people of the city and is generally considered at odds with what is contained in the term civilization. Ibn Mandzur (1966: 235) in Lisan al-‘Arab defines this word as khilaf alhadhar or something that is contrary to city or urban life. The word is also related to the desert. The words bādiyah and badāwah each means desert and desert life.

Ibn Khaldun (2005: 92-93) considers that the Bedouin way of life is an earlier phase than the sedentary life. This is an early form of civilization. Their life tends to be nomadic, unpretentious and only meet basic needs, but naturally longing for urban life and economy that go beyond the subsistence level. Badawī is the basis or the beginning of hadharī, and, vice versa, hadharī is a destination or the next stage of badāwa’s life, so is generally described by Ibn Khaldun in his Muqaddimah. Although the life of the Bedouin is usually contrasted with urban culture, in the era of Ibn Khaldun a way of life had become more complex, so was the Bedouin’s life. Some of them were living in large tribal communities and lived in a town with relatively large population.

The Bedouin also existed in the time of the Prophet Muhammad sallallaahu ‘alaihi wasallam, but their life is less complex than that was described by Ibn Khaldun, as the city life was also still modest. The Bedouins in this era lived in the desert in a very different manner from their urban compatriots. They occasionally came to the city, for trade or other purposes, but their characteristics were widely divergent from the urban residents. This difference did not only refer to the economic matters, but more than that also stand for knowledge, behaviour and manners.

It could be said that the Bedouins were the Arabs who lived scattered in the desert and stayed apart from the large tribes. According to Philip K. Hitti (2002: 23-27), “Individualism … is so deeply ingrained that the Bedouin has never been able to raise himself to the dignity of a social being of the international type”. But this does not mean they were disconnected or detached from any tribe. It was just that they did not really like to be bent in submission to any tribal authority or lived within social regulations that curbed their freedoms. It should also be remembered that the Bedouin was not totally alienated from the urban communities and vice versa. There were relationships and processes between the two. As Hitti appropriately describes, “there are stages of semi-nomadism and quasi-urbanity”. In this context, we can better understand some of the reports of the traditions that linked the Bedouin life and its characteristics with certain Arab tribes.

Abu Mas’ud narrated that the Prophet sallallaahu ‘alaihi wasallam said, “From this direction, fitna will come from the East. Brusqueness (al-jaf’u) and the hardness of the heart (ghildzu al-qulub) are the characteristics of the Bedouins (ahl al-Wabar) who are busy with their herd of camels and cows (and do not pay attention to religion), from the Rabi’a and Mudar” (Bukhari). The Bedouin in the hadith is not called badawī or a’rab. But ahl al-Wabar in Arabic approximately refers to the same entity, whose life is nomadic and its meaning is opposed to ahl al-madar, namely people who live sedentarily (see Wehr, 1966: 33 and 1045). Bani Fazarah was also categorized as Bedouins who in the pre-Islamic period had a compulsion to follow the Quraysh rules of Hajj and the Qurayshs were entitled to take their slaughtered animals (Kister, 1986: 33-34).

Arab Bedouins at the time of the Prophet are usually mentioned in the Qur’an and hadith as a’rab. But the general picture of them is less positive, not in the sense of reproaching, but rather of understanding and advising the reality attached to them. Narrations of hadith and history more frequently mention them anonymously, without name. Their appearances were recognized, but their name and standing were not. Their nature tended to be rude and lacked of manners, but the Prophet interacted with them patiently and with his noble attitude.

A number of Arab Bedouins once came to the Prophet sallallaahu ‘alaihi wasallam and without doubt boasted their faith. But the Koran straightened out, “… You believe not but you only say, ‘We have surrendered (in Islam),’…” (al-Qur’an, 49: 14). This is because faith had not yet entered into their hearts. In the other verses, the Qur’an characterizes them as “the worst in disbelief and hypocrisy” (asyaddu kufran wa nifāqan), “look upon what they spend (in Allah’s Cause) as a fine”, and “watch for calamities for you (Prophet)” (al-Qur’an, 9: 97-98). They had, wrote Ibn Jarir al-Tabari (1374H: 429) when interpreting the verse 97 above, “the hardest heart (aqsa qulūban) and the least knowledge (aqallu ‘ilman) of the rights of God.” And they were rarely interacted with good people (ahl al-Khayr). However, the Qur’an also states that among the Bedouins “there are some who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and look upon what they spend in Allah’s Cause as approaches to Allah, and a cause of receiving the Messenger’s invocations”, and one day God will admit them into His mercy (Paradise) (al-Qur’an 9: 99).

During the Battle of the Trench (Khandaq), the hypocrites of Medina were described in the Qur’an (33: 20) as desiring to go to the desert and lived for a time with the Bedouins while ensuring the ahdzab force that previously besieging Medina really left the town. Apparently the Bedouin villages were considered as safe places for them to hide the nifaq in their heart. And indeed shortly after the death of the Prophet sallallaahu ‘alaihi wasallam, there had been a ridda occurred, during which the people outside of Mecca and Medina became apostate and refused to pay zakat to the caliph Abu Bakr al-Siddiq radhiallahu ‘anhu. Many who turned away from Islam were from the Bedouin groups. However, Abu Bakr was able to overcome the situation and to maintain the light of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula from the threat of ridda (Haekal, 2003: 97).

That is why a city dweller that chose to move and settle in the desert was sometimes suspected as having a problem with his faith. After the assassination of Uthman ibn Affan, Salamah ibn al-Akwa’ radhiallahu ‘anhuma decided to settle in a place called al-Rabadzah in the desert. He was married and had a child in that place, and only returned to Medina a few days before his death. When he met Hajjaj, the latter said to him, “O Son of Al-Akwa’, you have turned on your heels (deserted Islam) by staying in the desert with the Bedouins.” Ibn al-Akwa’ said, “No, but Allah’s Apostle sallallaahu ‘ alaihi wasallam allowed me to stay with the Bedouin in the desert” (Bukhari, Muslim). Hajjaj might be trying to find a way to accuse Ibn al-Akwa’, but the reason he used was not completely unfounded. The answer from Ibn al-Akwa’ also suggests that badāwa is a setback and not a good thing if done without the permission of the Prophet.

Some narrations suggest that the Bedouin often displayed poor ethics as well as lack of seriousness in their religion. A report from Jabir al-Salami mentions about a Bedouin who converted to Islam and pledged to the Prophet, but then got fever in Medina. He came to the Prophet asking for his pledge to be canceled, three times, and the Prophet refused it for three times as well. The Bedouin finally left the city. In this regard the Prophet said that Medina “expels its impurities while it brightens and clears its good” (Bukhari). On another occasion, the Prophet sallallaahu ‘alaihi wasallam was sitting and eating with six companions, then a Bedouin entered and ate the food in two mouthfuls. “Had he mentioned (Allah’s name),” The Prophet said, “it would have been enough for all of you” (Tirmidhi, as mentioned in Riyadh al-Shalihīn). Once there was an Arab Bedouin came to the Prophet’s house and peeped at his door gap. The Prophet took an arrow or a sharp stick and pointed it at the Bedouin as if to gouge his eyes. The Bedouin went from that place (Bukhari in Adab al-Mufrad).

Some Bedouins once said to the Prophet – after knowing that the Prophet used to kiss his children – that they had never kissed their children. The Prophet said, “I cannot help you if Allah has taken away mercy from your hearts” (Bukhari, Muslim). Similarly, quite often we heard a story about a man urinated in the mosque. It was actually done by a Bedouin. Some people rose and wanted to hit him, but the Prophet held them. “Leave him alone and pour a bucket of water over it. You have been sent to make things easy and not to make them difficult,” said the prophet (Bukhari, as mentioned in Riyadh al-Shalihīn).

In spite of their rough character, there were also some Bedouins who were honest and earnest in Islam. One hadith from Abu Hurayra radhiallahu ‘anhu states that a Bedouin asked the Prophet sallallaahu ‘alaihi wasallam, “Tell me of such a deed that will make me enter Paradise, if I do it.” The Prophet replied, “Worship Allah, and worship none along with Him, offer the (five) prescribed compulsory prayer, pay the compulsory Zakat, and fast the month of Ramadan.” The Bedouin then said, “By Him, in Whose Hands my life is, I will not do more than this.” When the Bedouin went from that place, the Prophet said, “Whoever likes to see a man of Paradise, then he may look at this man” (Bukhari).

There was another Bedouin who converted to Islam and settled in Medina. When the Prophet went to war in Khaybar and got some booty, the Prophet sent his companion to give a part of the booty to this Bedouin. When the booty was offered to him, the Bedouin said, “I did not follow him for this. Instead, I followed him so that I may die and enter jannah when an arrow strikes me here.” He said that while pointing to his throat. When the Prophet heard this, he said, “If you are true, Allah will make it come true.” Sometime later, he joined jihad and got martyrdom with an arrow struck exactly in the spot he had pointed before in his neck (Kandhlawi, 1989: 640-641).

In fact, there was a resident of the desert that was close to the Prophet sallallaahu ‘alaihi wasallam. His name was Zāhir radhiallahu ‘anhu. He looked ugly, but the Prophet loves him. When he traveled to Medina, he would bring gifts from the desert for the Prophet, and when he was about to return home, the Prophet also provided him with supplies from the city. One day, the Prophet saw him busy with trade in the market of Medina. The Prophet came near to and hugged him from behind while he did not see it. “Who is this? Leave me,” said Zāhir. He turned slightly to the back and saw that it was the Prophet who hugged him from behind. He no longer tried to escape from the arms of the Prophet and gladly let his back leaned against the chest of the Prophet.

The Prophet sallallaahu ‘alaihi wasallam then said, jokingly, to the people around the place, “Who will purchase this slave?” Zāhir thus replied, “O Messenger of Allah, [if you shall sell me] you will be selling a defective thing (kāsidan) [and will earn a very little sum].” But the Prophet said to him, “But in the sight of Allah you are not defective (or worthless),” or the Prophet said, “You are precious in the sight of Allah” (Al-Tirmidhi, 1988: 113).

Generally speaking, the Bedouins at that time had some characteristics that are not really ideal. Nomadic life or badāwa is less favoured in Islam, though it is also not prohibited. Instead, sedentary life and hadhāra is preferable and more in line with the aspiration of Islam, not in the sense of frenetic, excessive luxury, and individualistic life, but rather in the sense of better manifestation of ‘ilm (knowledge), īmān (faith), and adab (good manner). Badāwa life at that time was seen as less favourable because many of its people did not pay attention to religion and did not possess good manners. However, the Bedouins were not despised or discriminated by the urban Muslim community, but rather to be dealt with patiently when any shortages were encountered and to be protected their rights, while they proceeded towards a higher standard of living and a more advanced culture.

Finally, when a Bedouin came forward with better characteristics than before, or than most of his colleagues, especially in the matters of faith and adab, then in fact he has no difference with a good urban Muslim. They are in fact brothers and in a positive mutual relationship, filled with love and trust. Perhaps, this is what the Prophet sallallaahu ‘alaihi wasallam means when he once said about the man of the desert that he loved, “Zāhir is our desert, and we are his city.”


Kuala Lumpur,

27 Rabiul Awwal 1437/ 7 Januari 2016

Writer is pursuing his PhD degree from Department of History and Civilization, IIUM.



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