Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Ancient Arabia and the Coming of Islam

Arabia, where the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would eventually be established, was harsh in ancient times. It was sandwiched between great civilisations. Despite commercial and religious interaction with these societies, there was no overarching state to guarantee peace. That was to change with the Prophet Mohammed's call to Islam.

Ancient Arabia and the Coming of Islam
Details of an ancient Nabataean carved tomb are seen at the archaeological site of al-Hijr (Hegra), near the northwestern Saudi city of al-Ula, on January 31, 2022. Dating back to the first century BC, the archaeological site, which is now open to tourists, includes 111 tombs most of which boast a decorated facade, cave drawings and even some pre-Nabataean inscriptions.  Thomas SAMSON

The Arabian Peninsula

In the Arabian Peninsula lies the origin of Islam, one of the great monotheistic religions of world history. But Islam did not spring rootless from the desert rock and sand. The revelation when it came to Muhammad was a new one, but it restated ideas and principles that were already old, and he spread the news among people already marked by their arid and remote environment.

The environment in the Arabian Peninsula was harsh. Its dry centre was sandwiched between great civilisations, the huge arc stretching from the Mediterranean through Mesopotamia into Persia, and the smaller statelets clustered along the Indian Ocean’s edge to the south.

In the early seventh century CE two warring and exhausted empires, Byzantium and Persia, ruled that area, protected from the desert by a ring of satellite kingdoms.In the far southwest of the peninsula was a mountainous region which the Romans, who attempted to conquer it in 25 BCE, called Arabia Felix, which means ‘Happy Arabia’. Today we call it Yemen.

The Byzantine Empire and the Sasanian Empire in the 7th century.

Source: Fanack, after Getoryk, “Byzantine & Persian Empires in the 7th Century.” World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 17 Nov 2019.

“Happy” referred to the fact that, unlike most of the Peninsula, the area of modern-day Yemen had access to abundant supplies of water. There was no permanent river, but thanks to ample rain, large-scale settled agriculture was possible. Monsoon rains supported extensive cultivation and a sizable population in the wadis (mountain valleys).

As early as the eighth century BCE there were four sizable kingdoms there, and in the following century one of them, Saba (Sheba), came to dominate the others. Saba was centred on a huge dam at Ma’rib, that collected the monsoon floodwaters.

It facilitated irrigation, allowing three sowings per year. Saba had its origins in the eighth century BCE and collapsed at the beginning of the seventh century CE. The result was devastation, which the Quran explains as punishment for abandoning God.

They were told: Eat from the provision of your Lord, and be grateful to Him. Yours is a good land and a forgiving Lord. But they turned away. So We sent against them a devastating flood, and replaced their orchards with two others producing bitter fruit, fruitless bushes and a few sparse thorny trees.
Quran, Surat Saba’, 15-16

The Ma’rib Dam, Yemen. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the second millennium BCE, a high-value trade in incense had developed between Yemen and Syria. Traders transported large loads using camels that could cross long tracts of barren land. The way-stops on this route were in oases that developed into small caravan cities, among them Mecca and Yathrib.

North of the Arabian Peninsula lay the territories of two great empires. On the northwest was the Byzantine Empire, the eastern wing of the ancient Roman Empire, with its capital at Constantinople. To the northeast was the Persian empire of the Sassanian dynasty.

A state of semi-permanent war had weakened them both, but they had rich and powerful economies and controlled the great arc of cultivable land: the Fertile Crescent.It stretched from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean through what is now Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria, to Mesopotamia. Apart from Arabia Felix, this was the only other area with abundant rainfall.

Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates, forms the core of modern-day Iraq. In this period it was Sassanian territory, ruled from Ctesiphon not far from modern Baghdad. Its territory stretched eastward, through the highlands of Persia toward what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan. Another arm stretched down the eastern side of the Gulf to include modern-day Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

On the western side of the peninsula was the Red Sea, dominated by the Pharaonic empire of Egypt in the Nile Valley and further south the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia.

The Peninsula itself was extremely arid, yet its territory was not all empty. Transhumant herders could live there and small settlements were possible in oases, and there was a string of oases along the eastern coast of the Red Sea, the area known as the Hijaz.

The oases known as al-Ta’if, Yathrib (in post-Islamic times known as Medina), Mecca, and the villages of the Wadi al-Qura and Tabuk relied on the aquifers, underground systems that allowed very limited agriculture. This was also the case on the caravan routes between Arabia Felix and the Byzantine and Persian empires, and onwards into Abyssinia across the southern part of the Red Sea.

On the eastern coast of the Peninsula, small settlements that were part of the Sassanian empire were linked to the trading routes of the Gulf. Further north, there were small cities like Petra, in what is today Jordan, and Mada’in Salih, in modern-day Saudi Arabia, where remains of well-preserved monumental tombs with decorated facades cut into the rocks still exist. Both these cities were founded by the Nabatean civilisation ( 1st century BCE to 1st century CE).

In Petra, not only tombs but houses and official buildings were carved into rock. Its excellent defences allowed it to dominate the caravan trade across the desert. By the beginning of the first century CE Petra was an ally of Rome, although Petra, while it was under Roman rule, soon declined rapidly, partly because of a shift to sea-based trade routes.

Religious Interaction

While Arabia interacted with other societies through trade, there was also a wider cultural interaction, especially religious. After the end of the Jewish state, the Jews settled in parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Important Jewish communities developed in Yathrib, and in the villages of Wadi al-Qura. Khaybar was an important trading community and Tayma was a Jewish fortified city.

There were also Christians in Yathrib, and in South Arabia. Christianity came from the same monotheistic basis as Judaism, but was not limited to a single group of people. Mark the Evangelist is supposed to have introduced Christianity to Egypt when he founded the first church in Alexandria. Although the Roman Empire rigorously suppressed Christianity, it became the state religion under Emperor Theodosius, (347-397).

Christianity soon divided into schisms over the nature of God. The theological distinctions were extraordinarily complicated but they became defining principles of identity. As a result, Christianity in Egypt, which recognised God as having a single divine nature (this was called monophysitism), was at odds with diophysite Christianity in the Byzantine Empire which believed that Jesus had two natures – god and man – in a single person.

Christianity spread into the Arabian Peninsula in several ways. Through merchants from Syria and Persia, reputedly by missionaries sent by Constantine; by refugees from the persecution of monophysite Christianity in the Byzantine Empire; and wars between Byzantium and Persia.

In southwestern Arabia, Sabean religion seems to have evolved from a polytheistic system centred around heavenly bodies ( Sun, Moon and Venus-star) into a form of monotheism with a Merciful Lord of Heaven, that was apparently separate from Christianity and Judaism, although communities of Jews and Christians lived there too. There was also a more widespread Arabian tradition of monotheists, identified as Hanafis in the Quran and early Islamic texts.

Although there was an opening toward monotheism in Arabia, the religion of much of the region was polytheistic: a multiplicity of Gods, whose cults in various forms spread across the desert. For instance, representations of al-Uzza have been noted in Petra, Bahrain and southern Arabia, often depicted in various human forms.

Idol of Atargates from Petra. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Mainz; National Museum, Amman

The most important beliefs held that certain places were sacred. Such religious sites appeared in many of the oasis towns of the Hijaz. Al-Ta’if was one such site, the shrine of a god named Allat, Nakhla, with the shrine of the goddess al-Uzza. Mecca’s economic hegemony was secured by the sanctuary in the oasis itself, the Ka`ba, in which were kept the effigies of deities belonging to the clans of the surrounding desert.

Around the oasis of Mecca was a string of sanctuaries – Ukaz, Dhu al-Majaz, Majanna, Arafat and Mina. They became places of pilgrimage in which all warfare and feuding were prohibited in the pilgrimage season. These sacred territories became the underpinning of trade as well as religion.

Despite commercial and religious interaction in the area, there was no overarching state to guarantee peace. Solidarity based on kinship formed the basic organising principle of society. The tribe was founded on that kinship, although a man’s primary loyalty was to his nearest relatives, then to his clan and then to the tribe.

This network of interrelated groups was the only defence against injury or insult. The concept of mutual revenge meant that the group would avenge one of its members who was killed by someone from another tribe or clan. Yet although there was equality within the tribe, or the clan, some groups were more powerful than others and strong tribes could dominate and make less powerful tribes their clients.

This combination of sanctuary, trade and kinship solidarity underpinned the growth at the oasis of Mecca, which was in a particularly desolate location, where very little grew.

The Prophet Muhammad and the Call to Islam

Sometime in the sixth century CE, the Quraysh tribe, which dominated the oasis, seized control of lucrative trade routes by building a series of alliances linking Yemen with Syria. This enabled them to take control of the transit trade in spices and gold between Arabia Felix and the north. The Quraysh made alliances with tribes across the peninsula that allowed them to move their trading caravans freely.

Two important branches of the Quraysh descended from `Abd Manaf through his sons Abd Shams and Hashim. Hashim’s great-grandson, Abu al-Qasim Muhammad ibn Abd Allah ibn Abd al-Muttalib ibn Hashim, who was born in about 570 CE, became the Prophet of Islam. In the first forty years of his life, Muhammad was not an important man. He was an orphan: his father died before he was born and his mother died when he was six.

His grandfather, Abd al-Muttalib, passed away when he was eight. His uncle, Abu Talib, brought him up. As a young man, he became the manager of the business affairs of a rich widow named Khadija. He was very successful and although he was fifteen years younger than her, Muhammad married his employer and while she was alive he married no other woman.

Only three daughters, and no sons, survived into the Islamic period. One of them, Fatima, would lay the basis for a direct genealogical succession to the leadership of the Muslims. In around 610, when he was about 40 years old, Muhammad received his first revelation from God:

“Read! in the name of your Lord who created Man from a clinging substance. Read: Your Lord is most Generous, He who taught by the pen Taught man that which he knew not.”

There were two implications in those words – that there was a single god who created the world and that before this revelation, humanity had been living in a realm of ignorance (jahiliya in Arabic.) The revelations that followed stressed God’s majesty, power and mercy, and that men and women should do good.

They should care for the weak, and abandon the pursuit of riches which would be of no use on the final day of judgement when individuals were judged by their conduct during their lives. These ethical teachings were accompanied by theological messages.

Muhammad was the last of a line of prophets stretching from Adam, Abraham and Moses to Jesus. All had proclaimed a single God and the worst sin was to place another beside him. The early revelations stressed that humans faced a moral choice, for good or evil. They could accept and worship God; or they could turn away and busy themselves with private things. They could achieve purity only through God and Muhammad emphasised the importance of prayer.

A New State

Muhammad’s first followers were a small group. The first to accept the truth of teachings was Khadija, although this may have been more than simple conjugal solidarity. Members of her family were reportedly monotheists, hanifs and Christians.

Other early converts came from Muhammad’s extended family: his cousin Ali bin Abi Talib, the future husband of Fatima, and other members of the Banu Hashim clan. Of the earliest converts, only Abu Bakr came from another clan. Clan solidarity protected the small group of new believers.

Although the message was peaceful, many Meccans disliked it. The militant monotheism of the message and talk of an afterlife and a day of judgement, were not welcome to those who worshipped the idols that filled the Ka`ba. The moral message threatened the economic standing of the elite, and Muhammad’s demand that everyone should join him undermined tribal solidarity.

Quite early on, people attacked the first Muslims. Prayer was disrupted and Muhammad’s teachings were subjected to public ridicule. Yet he refrained from a violent response. A group of Muslims fled to Ethiopia, where they took refuge with the Christian king, but other early recruits were notably tough fighters. Abu Talib was one of the leaders of the Quraysh and although he did not become a Muslim, he protected his nephew, his son Ali and others of his kin who did.

Eventually, Muhammad sought help outside Mecca and found it in Yathrib, where the community promised to fight in his cause. In 622 he and many of his followers left Mecca for a new home in Yathrib. This journey (hijra in Arabic) began a new stage in Islam, when a small group of Muslims formed the nucleus of a new state.

Yathrib became Madinat al-Rasul (the city of the prophet, or simply Madina) and the date of the hijra became the year 1 in the Islamic calendar. Monotheism was now a political programme as well as a religious one. Muhammad had to consolidate power in Madina, and overcome his enemies among the Quraysh in Mecca. He also had to incorporate the nomadic tribes of the surrounding desert and mountains. It took him eight years.

Although there were military setbacks, victories over his opponents in Mecca brought Muhammad’s followers booty and glory and eventually the Madinans began to take over the Meccan trade routes. Many of the Meccan leaders were prepared to compromise, including Abu Sufyan, one of the important leaders of the Umayyad clans. Muhammad married his daughter and sealed the alliance.

In 629, at the time of the pilgrimage, Muhammad entered Mecca unopposed. He cleared the idols out of the Ka`ba, but otherwise did very little harm to the population or the property, and there was little bloodshed. Within a short time, most of the Prophet’s former opponents had converted to Islam. This laid the basis of a new, Muslim state. In the following two years, the Prophet secured his authority over the rest of the peninsula, using a mixture of force and negotiation.

When the Prophet died in 632 the revelations ceased. His successors’ task was political and military: to protect and maintain the new state, not to provide religious guidance. But Muhammad left no clear directions about who should succeed him beyond giving the task of choosing the new leader from among his principal supporters. One of these was Ali, his cousin and the husband of his daughter Fatima. Ali’s supporters would later claim that the Prophet had designated him in particular. This is the origin of the Shi’a branch.

Meanwhile, the other main members of the new elite settled on a very early convert, Abu Bakr, as the first leader of the community after the death of its prophet. His title was khalifat al-rasul (successor or lieutenant of the Prophet), a word that has been anglicised as caliph. His first task was to deal with the most imminent threat to the new Muslim state.

Following Muhammad’s death many tribes on the Peninsula abandoned their alliance, and with it Islam itself. Abu Bakr spent his short term as caliph crushing these rebels, and reuniting Arabia. He also launched campaigns against the Sassanids and Byzantines to the north.

The two caliphs who followed Abu Bakr both came from the pre-Islamic Meccan elite: `Umar (caliph between 634-644), followed by `Uthman (caliph 644-656). They began military campaigns to expand Islam to the north. Muslim forces invaded Syria, part of the Byzantine empire which was rich and easily conquered; Iraq, which proved more difficult, and Egypt, which was almost a personal project of Amr ibn al-As, the Arab commander.

The supporters of Ali maintained his claim to the caliphate, backed by early Muslims from Medina. When Uthman was murdered by a Persian slave, the Caliphate at last passed to Ali. When Ali was killed in 661, it led to a civil war.

These first four caliphs were termed the ‘Righteous Caliphs’ (al-Rashidun) because they were chosen according to their perceived personal merits. After Ali’s death, the Caliphate was fixed in the Umayyad branch of the Quraysh on a hereditary basis, until the Abbasid family from the Hashimi branch of the tribe seized power in 749.

The caliphate continued in that bloodline until 1258. As the Umayyads ruled from Damascus, and the Abbasids from Baghdad, the political centre of Islam was permanently removed from the Arabian Peninsula. However, the preeminence of Mecca and Madina as religious centres and of Arabic as the language of international learning were paramount.