The Bedouins - the Lords of the Desert

He shall be a wild ass of man, his hand against every man´s hand and every man´s hand against him.    

                                                                                                                                                 Genesis 16:12

The word Bedouin (badui/badawi/pl. badu/badw) is derived from the Arabic term for the nomadic life (badawa). Its root is b-d-w. The badiya/bediyah is the land in which the badu lived, equated with the opposite of the settled land (Jabbur). Oppenheim characterizes the Bedouins in his preface as the native master race of the desert: proud and independent, tough and hardy, hospitable and warlike. Bedouin means "inhabitant of the desert". The word desert in this context applies not only to the actual sand and stone deserts, but also to the desert steppes. And Müller states: “The camel is the first characteristic of the Bedouin.”


It is said that the Bedouin way of life did not change from archaic times to the 19th and even early 20th century. As Glubb claimed, a key moment for his learning process was the realization that the Old Testament contained an accurate description of Bedouin life in Genesis 18. According to Glubb, the story of Abraham offering hospitality to the strangers could have been repeated amongst the desert people with whom he lived between 1924 and 1925. Many of today´s Bedouin names were already known in the age of ancient Greek and Byzantium. We have descriptions of their customs and mentality before the appearance of Islam in the 6th century. The striking resemblance between the Arab nomads of the pre- Islamic time and those described by various eye-witnesses of the 19th and 20th century emphasizes the remarkable isolation in which they have lived, at least for a millennium and a half.

“Bedouin ways were hard even for those brought up to them, and for strangers terrible: a death in life” (T.E. Lawrence). “The first and most striking characteristic of desert life was its hardship. Its poverty and the desperate struggle needed to keep alive - particularly the battle with hunger, thirst and vast distances” (Glubb). The actual Bedouins were true nomads, camel breeders, who wandered from one grazing and watering place to the next. They banded themselves into tribes. As Jabbur pointed out, “the division of the Bedouins into tribes and clans and their devotion to a common line of descent became one of their most prominent distinguishing features, and this solidarity had an influence on Arab life in general. Since pre-Islamic times they have devoted their attention to genealogies, and anyone ignorant of them they view with suspicion and regard as deficient in ambition and culture.” The tribes traveled through the entire "desert", the vast planes of Inner Mesopotamia, Syria and Arabia. These migrations resulted in permanent rivalries, warlike skirmishes and raids among the tribes. “The tribe was for the Bedouin not only his „country”, but his trade union, his club, his insurance policy and his old age pension. …The tendency to violent and arrogant self-assertion was constantly checked by the dependence of the individual upon the tribe. Crimes of violence were restrained by the laws of revenge. …If these qualities appear hard, ruthless and savage, there were compensating virtues. In a country in which a man lived in such constant insecurity, a true and loyal friend was indeed a pearl of great price. If the Arabs were merciless to their enemies, they were capable of extraordinary loyalty to their friends. The immense empty spaces of the desert and the toils and dangers to which travelers were exposed, made hospitality to the stranger and the wayfarer a sacred duty. Probably in the history of the world, no race has equaled the Arabs in hospitality - it is the Arab virtue par excellence.” (Sir J.B.Glubb)

Besides the true nomads, there were a number of tribes, called arab as-shawaya,  at the edge of the desert who had originally been nomads, but had been driven from their former grazing areas by stronger tribes. They turned to breeding sheep and to agriculture at the edge of the arable lands. This applied to Syria and Mesopotamia as well as to the palm districts of Arabia proper. These semi-nomads were often driven entirely into the fertile lands and eventually settled down there. But they retained their tribal structure and continued to live in tents for a long time. The larger part of the population of the oases and the towns in Arabia, called hadar, also had tribal structures and were almost always descended from Bedouins. Therefore, according to Rasheed, ”it is simplistic to translate the term badu as pastoral nomads because the word involved something more than animal-herding and nomadism. Although nomadism was an essential component of the notion of badu, it was not the determining factor which allowed a group to be so classified. Within the context of Arabia, all animal-herders were badu, but not all badu were pastoral nomads. Groups could still be classified as badu even if they were no longer animal-herders, like for example the Shammar tribal sections which took residence in Hail and other villages of Jabal Shammar while leaving their animal herds with their relatives in the desert, regarded themselves and were regarded by others as badu” (Rasheed). Out of this reason it is understandable, that Ibn Saud could claim “to be king of all nomads” (Glubb).

There are three parts of the pillar „Bedouins“ in the book BEDOUIN HERITAGE. To continue click on the following links:

Bedouin history           Bedouin society           Bedouin tribes               back to seven pillars