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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

The Arabs are a Semitic people from south-western Asia. A number of Semitic peoples and civilizations have flourished in this region over a period of several thousand years. Various groups such as the Canaanites, the Arameans and the Akkadians built their cities in Mesopotamia, the Levant and the northern Arabian Peninsula. They have migrated here and there and have interbred. At various times, many of their people either came from what is now northern Saudi Arabia and nearby areas or later settled there. For example, the Akkadians, who set up an empire in central Mesopotamia which peaked in the 22nd to 24th centuries BCE, had originally migrated from the Arabian Peninsula.

The first known reference to the word “Arab” came in 853 BCE when an Assyrian scribe told of how the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III defeated king Gindibu at the Battle of Karkar in that year. The beaten king was said to have come from “matu arbai”, which means Arab land. Gindibu was one of a coalition of 12 kings and their forces, and the Assyrian king was eventually defeated by them. Some of the names of those who fought in this battle are tied to proto-Arabic dialects. Words such as Arabi, Arubu and Aribi soon appeared in Assyrian writings, while the Hebrew Bible refers to the Arvi people. All these words mean Arab or Arabian and probably referred to the desert tribes of Semitic peoples in northern Arabia and Syria.

Evidence of the emergence of the Arabs in northern Arabia is found in a number of texts and inscriptions from the 8th century BCE onwards. Several language or cultural groups of Arabs evolved and lived in northern Arabia and nearby areas, a region known for its busy trading routes and high migration. The Lihyan people lived in north-western Arabia until about 400 BCE. The Thamudic people (not to be confused with the Thamuds of southern Arabia) lived in northern parts of Arabia and the Sinai from around this time until the 3rd or 4th century CE. Meanwhile, the Hasaitic people lived in eastern Arabia in the 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE. The Safaitic people lived in north-western and north central Arabia as well as nearby areas in Syria and Jordan from about the 1st century BCE to the 4th century CE.

Another Arab group, the Nabataeans, lived in southern Jordan and northern Arabia from about 300 BCE, establishing a trade network in a region where the Edomites had previously lived for centuries. They had agriculture, permanent dwellings and made wine. Trajan annexed the Nabataean Kingdom to Rome around 107 CE, and in the 4th century they converted to Christianity. The Qahtanite Arabs from southern Arabia and Yemen, where there was far less migration and intermixing than in the north, took over the remnants of the kingdom and the land was divided among the Arab kingdoms of the Byzantines, Ghassanids, Himyarites and Kindahs.

Many historians put the Arabs into three broad groups around this time: the ‘perishing Arabs’, which include various tribes who disappeared through invasion, assimilation or decadence; ‘pure Arabs,’ who were the Qahtanites; and their rivals, the ‘Arabized Arabs,’ who were the Adnani Arabs of the northern, central and western parts of the peninsula and descended from Adnan. Whether the Adnani were Arabized or the original Arabs is contentious. Many scholars consider them as the original Arabs, who included the nomadic Bedouin who had lived in the area from time immemorial. According to Muhammad, his ancestor Ishmael, who is the son of Abraham and an ancestor of Adnan, was the first to speak Arabic.

The Qahtanites were supposedly descended from Qahtan, who is thought to be the biblical Joktan, a descendant of Shem, who is an ancestor of Abraham. This would mean the two Arab groups are related. The Qahanites consist of two subgroups: the Himyar and the Kahlan. The various nomadic Kahlan tribes were forced out by the settled and stronger Himyar tribes and migrated to Mesopotamia and Syria in the 3rd century CE. The Himyarite Kingdom dates from 110 BCE and was the dominant group in Arabia until 525 CE. It was an agricultural society with strong trade links with eastern Africa and the Mediterranean, mainly the Roman Empire. However, the strength of Nabataean trade, Roman superiority and intertribal fighting led to disunity and decline. In the 5th century, a number of its kings converted to Judaism and by the 6th and 7th centuries, the religion flourished in Himyar.

In 613 CE, merchant, shepherd and prophet Muhammad from the Arabian city of Mecca started teaching his revelations from God, but was met with hostility. He moved to Medina in 622 and united the tribes. His followers grew to 10,000 and conquered Mecca in 630. By the time of his death in 632, he had united the warring Arab tribes, and most of the peninsula had converted to Islam. In the following century, the Arabs took their message well beyond Arabia, expanding by a series of Islamic conquests to create a vast Muslim Empire that extended from western India to the Iberian Peninsula, and included central Asia, the Middle East and northern Africa.

Today, the Arabs and their influence have extended around the world. Arabian is the official language of Saudi Arabia and several other Middle Eastern countries and much of northern Africa. It is one of the official languages of Iraq and several countries in northern and eastern Africa. Millions of Arabs live in countries such as Brazil, France, Argentina, Iran and the US.