Old map of Arabia with South at the top and North at the bottom
Map from the Tabula Rogeriana created by the Arab geographer, Muhammad al-Idrisi, in 1154 CE. South is oriented up.

Chaos was spreading all over the Arab Peninsula. Incessant ghazu raids now led to what seemed to be a constant state of warfare between tribes, a condition that was exacerbated by unprecedented drought and famine. Quraysh society (Muhammad’s tribe) was stratified, with its wealth confined to a few ruling families; the weaker, poorer, marginalized clans and individuals were left, lost and disoriented, on the outside. At the same time, the Arab attitude towards religion provided a framework that was open to ideas and interpretations.

A Time of Conflict

By 570 CE, the year of Muhammad’s birth, two major powers of the region, the Eastern Roman Byzantine Empire and the Sasanian Empire, were locked in a series of intense debilitating wars with each other. These recurred throughout the 6th and 7th centuries,  and contributed to the demise of both civilizations.

From their capital, Constantinople, the Byzantine emperors of the sixth century had envisioned and attempted a Christianized form of the Roman world order. But this dream proved impossible as pagans, Jews, and Samaritans resisted Christianity. Within Christianity itself sharp divisions arose, particularly about the human and/or divine nature of Jesus that set one group against another. Ascetic movements: monasteries, convents, pilgrimages, saint worship, icons, relics and new forms of liturgy affected the religious mood of the Empire, and a widespread appeal of apocalyptic ideas predicting the end of days ran rampant.

In the fourth and fifth centuries much of the western half of the Byzantine Empire was disintegrating, unable to maintain the strength and prosperity of so vast a territory. Though undermined by earthquakes and repeated bouts of plague, the eastern half of the empire remained intact.

Zoroastrianism became the state religion of the Sasanian Empire in the 3rd century. But the population included large communities of Jews, some established in Babylon as far back as the time as the Babylonian Exile in 597 BCE and of the later Great Revolt in 70 CE. Though the Sasanids were suspicious of Roman Christianity, Christian communities like the Nestorians, who had been condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431 and forced to flee the Byzantine Empire (the Old Roman Empire), were favored.

Map of the Roman-Persian frontier
In the fourth and fifth centuries much of the western half of the Byzantine Empire was disintegrating, unable to maintain the strength and prosperity of so vast a territory.

Fred M. Donner writes in Muhammad and the Believers, “For all their differences, the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires shared certain common features and faced similar challenges. Their rulers struggled to unify vast domains and fragmented populations by the use of force, when necessary, and by recourse to a religious ideology that they tried to impose on their subjects, which bolstered their claim to rule. Both, perhaps inadvertently, fostered movements with egalitarian tendencies that used religious ideas to blunt the harshness of existing social norms. Both faced the challenge of warding off external enemies on their frontiers … Above all the two empires faced the challenge of each other. … At stake was not merely Byzantine versus Sasanian political control and economic influence, but also Christianity as opposed to Zoroastrianism and Hellenic as opposed to Iranian cultural traditions.”

Tribal Society and Trade

The predominance of vast barren desert, alleviated only by a few water sources where agricultural communities gathered, such as Ta’if and Yathrib, made complete colonization unattractive.

Most of the Arabian Peninsula remained outside the direct control of these two world powers. The predominance of vast barren desert, alleviated only by a few water sources where agricultural communities gathered, such as Ta’if and Yathrib, made complete colonization unattractive. Nevertheless, both empires competed to establish alliances with tribes via barter and bribery as they tried to control trade routes.

Competitive efforts from both Empires centered particularly on Yemen in the South. There agriculture thrived due to an ancient irrigation system of large water tunnels in the mountains, and dams, the most impressive of which was known as the Ma’rib Dam, built ca. 700 BCE. The ancient states of  Saba, Ma’in, Qataban, Hadhramaut, Awsan, and Himyar evolved in this region, thanks to the cultivation and trade of spices and aromatics, including frankincense and myrrh, highly valued by the surrounding cultures. The Mar’rib Dam collapsed in 570 CE . This is noted in the Qur’an and the consequent failure of the irrigation system provoked the migration of up to 50,000 people, who were forced to survive the harsh environment, taking refuge with other tribes as they were able.

Asia and the Sassanid Empire circa 500 CE

Asia and the Sassanid Empire approximately 500 CE.

Too few resources led to endless battles with other tribes for water, pastureland and grazing rights.

The sixth century saw Bedouin tribes on well-saddled camels employed by foreign merchants to transport goods and guide caravans from one well to another by direct route across the steppes. Thus goods from India, East Africa, Yemen and Bahrain traveled on to both Byzantium and Syria.

Nomadic (badawah) life was harsh. Scarce resources meant that survival depended upon close-knit family and kinship groups or “tribes.” Too few resources led to endless battles with other tribes for water, pastureland and grazing rights. A tribe’s sheep, goats, horses, camels and slaves were under constant threat from an acquisition raid, or ghazu. The ghazu was a form of negative reciprocity and an accepted part of life necessitated by the fact that there was simply not enough to go around, particularly when water holes dried up and all food sources failed. These kinds of raids had become endemic during the century preceding Muhammad’s revelation, and often escalated from quarrels into decades of warfare between tribes. The Days of al-Fijar in which the Quraysh and the Kinanah opposed the Hawazin is an example of this, and the young Muhammad, who was a member of the Quraysh from the distinguished clan of Hashim, is said to have participated.

To facilitate retribution a “blood money” value was set for everything: individuals, goods and assets.

To be successful a tribe needed members who would not be defeated by the overwhelming harshness of life in the arid desert. As a consequence each tribe’s life and culture evolved around a chivalric code (muruwah) that was an attempt to overcome life’s severe conditions, give meaning to the Arab’s world and prevent people from giving in to despair. “Muruwah meant courage, patience, endurance; it consisted of a dedicated determination to avenge any wrong done to the group, to protect its weaker members, and defy its enemies. To preserve the honor of the tribe, each member had to be ready to leap to the defense of his kinsmen at a moment’s notice and to obey his chief without question. … Above all, a tribesman had to be generous and share his livestock and food. … A truly noble Bedouin would take no heed for the morrow, showing by his lavish gifts and hospitality that he valued his fellow tribesmen more than his possessions…. ” says Karen Armstrong in Muhammad A Prophet of our Time. Struggle was glorious, arrogance a sign of nobility and humility a sign of weakness.

Within the tribe the Law of Retribution was arbitrated and administered by the chief, or Sheykh: injured parties could claim retribution – an act of aggression would be avenged in equal terms – the killing of a neighbor’s son or camel meant the execution of one’s own son or camel. To facilitate retribution a “blood money” value was set for everything: individuals, goods and assets.

In an age where outside the tribe the individual was totally vulnerable, it was the idea of hospitality (diyafah) that enabled travel through tribal territories. Writes Paul Wheatley in his book The Places Where Men Pray Together: Cities in Islamic Lands Seventh Through Tenth Centuries, “Arabian tribesmen view hospitality as a sacred duty; the pagan poets of the Jahiliya praised it as a cardinal virtue and archetyped it in the celebrated legend of Hatim al-Ta’I. Elaborate rules governed the granting and termination of hospitality to persons outside the lineage, doubtless in response to the functional significance of the traveller.” Wheatley goes on to say that providing protection and safe conduct to strangers displayed the authority of the Sheykh and his tribe and confirmed their control over the territory.

Jahiliyyah, “The Time of Ignorance”

By the end of the sixth century the weakness of muruwah was apparent: each tribe had its own inherited rules, many of which led to reckless and extreme behavior. By this time, too, Yemen had become a province of Persia. With no hope of anything better, the Bedouin saw themselves in a life of struggle—relieved only by moments of pleasure, often taken in the oblivion of date wine—and constantly vulnerable to exploitation by the two Empires. There was thought to be nothing wrong with stealing, injuring or murdering people outside one’s own tribe, so peace depended on a fragile stability created through alliances and affiliations between tribes. This depended more on the threat of retaliation and the comparative strength of each than on anything else.

One can imagine that many tribes’ members, especially the weak, the old, women and children, lived in constant terror. Chaos was spreading all over the Arab Peninsula. Incessant ghazu raids now led to what seemed to be a constant state of warfare between tribes, a condition that was exacerbated by unprecedented drought and famine.

With no hope of anything better, the Bedouin saw themselves in a life of struggle—relieved only by moments of pleasure, often taken in the oblivion of date wine—and constantly vulnerable to exploitation by the two Empires.

A state of mind prevailed that the Prophet Muhammad called jahiliyyah, which, according to Karen Armstrong, translates as: “violent and explosive irascibility, arrogance, tribal chauvinism.”  This same word would later be understood to mean the pre-Islamic historical period itself, translated as “The Time of Ignorance.”

The Quraysh had been in control of Mecca (Makkah) since the fourth century. Situated in the middle of the Hijaz, a region in the west of present-day Saudi Arabia, it had become a major commercial center at the crossroads of trade caravans linking Arabia with India, Persia, China, and Byzantium, and had its own Red Sea port at Shu‘ayba. Unlike other tribal settlements developed around water sources, Mecca’s stony infertile ground made agriculture impossible, so survival centered around commerce. During the last years of the sixth century the Quraysh had become extremely successful at this, but by the mid-seventh century ruthless capitalism had eroded their traditional egalitarian way of life. Quraysh society was now stratified, with its wealth confined to a few ruling families; the weaker, poorer, marginalized clans and individuals were left, lost and disoriented on the outside.

A map of important tribes and Empire of the Arabian Peninsula
Approximate locations of some of the important tribes and Empire of the Arabian Peninsula at the dawn of Islam (approximately 600 CE).

Pre-Islamic Religion on the Arabian Peninsula

The peoples of Arabia were predominately polytheistic, and Mecca was the place of their most important sanctuary, the Ka’ba.  Its ancient origins are unknown but, since all accessible deities were represented there, it was a place of annual pilgrimage for all tribes. At one time there were said to have been as many as three hundred and sixty idols in and around the Ka’ba. This, too, was under the control of the Quraysh, who wisely established a non-violent zone that was Haram (sacred, forbidden), radiating for twenty miles around the sanctuary, and made Mecca a place where any tribe could enter without fear and where they were free to practice both religion and commerce.

Photo of the Ka’ba in 1910

The Ka’ba in 1910.

The Ka’ba was the most important holy place in Arabia even in pre-Islamic times; it contained hundreds of idols representing Arabian tribal gods and other religious figures, including Abraham, Jesus and Mary. It is a massive cube believed to have been built by the Prophet Abraham – the ancestor to the Arabs through his first son Ishmael – and dedicated to al-Lah (The-God who is the same God worshipped by the Jews and Christians); it stands in the centre of the Sanctuary in the heart of Mecca. Embedded in the Ka’ba’s granite matrix is the famous Black Stone, which tradition says was originally cast down from Heaven as a sign for Adam.

The Ka’ba was the most important holy place in Arabia even in pre-Islamic times; it contained hundreds of idols representing Arabian tribal gods and other religious figures, including Abraham, Jesus and Mary.

The Zam-Zam holy well is nearby and is believed to have quenched the thirst of Hagar and her child, Ishmael, in the wilderness. (Genesis 21:19). Arabs from all over the peninsula made an annual pilgrimage to Mecca, performing traditional rites over a period of several days.

Muhammad eventually destroyed all the idols in and around the Ka’ba, and re-dedicated it to the One God, Allah, and the annual pilgrimage became the Hajj, the rite and duty of all Believers.

Barnaby Rogerson writes in The Prophet Muhammad: A Biography “The usual form of worship is for pilgrims to circle the Ka’ba seven times at a trot and then to drink from the holy spring. This rite seems to have a straightforward interpretation, with the square Ka’ba symbolizing the four corners of the earth which is circled seven times, just like the seven planets (or spheres of heaven) which were believed to circle the earth. We still live today in a yearly calendar ordered by these ancient beliefs, from the names and numbers of our days of the week, to the four weeks that form our lunar months and the stellar signs of the zodiacs.”

Painting of Mohammad and the Ka’ba

Muhammad at the Ka’ba from an Ottoman (Turkish) epic about the life of Muhammad, completed around 1388, Illustration by Nakkaş Osman.

Like other pre-Axial societies, pre-Islamic Arab beliefs involved a pantheon of accessible deities with whom people could communicate. They also believed in darh, or fate, which probably helped them adapt to the high mortality rate. Above all of the lesser Gods was the one remote God, al-Lah the God who was the same God worshipped by the Jews and Christians. He was beyond the reach of ordinary people. Lesser deities were represented in the Ka’ba and in shrines to their individual honor scattered throughout the peninsula. These gods would be prayed to for rain, children, health and the like and would intercede on their behalf to Allah – the God in times of dire need.

This pre-Islamic attitude towards religion provided a framework that was open to ideas and interpretations. The Sasanian presence in the Arabian Peninsula had brought with it the influence of Zoroastrianism, in which Ahura Mazda and Ahriman, the Gods of Light and Darkness, were in constant battle for the souls of humanity. Jewish presence in the Arabian Peninsula appears also to date from as early as the Babylonian Exile and certainly from the time of the Great Revolt in 70 CE, almost six centuries before Muhammad.

Scholars note that a symbiotic relationship existed between the two peoples: Jews were Arabized and Arabic speaking and, over the centuries, Arabs had absorbed Jewish beliefs and practices. There were Jewish merchants and Jewish Bedouin, farmers, poets and warriors. What today is the center of Islam, the Ka’ba in Mecca, has ancient Semitic roots: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and others were associated with it long before the rise of Islam.  Both Jews and Arabs were believed to be descendants of Abraham, an idol of whom could be viewed inside the pre-Islamic Ka’ba.

Since their earliest times Christian groups were established in Syria and Mesopotamia. In CE 313, the Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal and it became accepted as the imperial religion by Rome. The First Council of Nicaea in AD 325, declared Christ to be both fully God and fully man and established belief in the Trinity which represented God as three in one: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Those who disagreed with this new orthodox position, Nestorians, Gnostics, and Arians for example, were excommunicated and declared heretics. Many fled from persecution, beyond the reach of the Byzantine Empire into the Persian and Arab worlds. Theirs was a proselytizing faith and as they spread throughout the Peninsula a number of tribes were converted. The Ghassanids, who wintered on the border of Byzantium, became the largest early Christian tribal community, the Nabateans another, and by the sixth century the Yemenite city of Najran was a center of Arab Christianity.

The Legend of Hatim al Tai

This classic tale illustrates the Arab’s view of hospitality as a sacred duty and cardinal virtue—in this retelling the reader is also invited to reflect upon the real meaning of generosity.

Related:

The Life of Muhammad
Muhammad the Messenger
Muhammad the Unifier
Judaism and Christianity in the Qur’an
The Community of Believers

Further Reading

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