A History Of Islam (part 1)

Islam From The Beginning To 1300

Author: Stearns, Peter N.
Date: 1992s

Arabia Before The Prophet

Islam produced one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever known. While Europe wallowed in the mire of the Dark Ages, Islam produced advances in science, mathematics, literature, medicine, architecture, religion as well as many other fields of discipline. Islamic cities such as Baghdad were the premier centers of learning and folks flocked there from all over the world to study. When Europeans first saw Granada and other Moslem cities, they were stunned by the sophistication and beauty. It was Islam's preservation of the great Greco/Roman texts of antiquity, as well as their own advances that allowed Europe to crawl out from the depression it was in. The West owes much to the great civilization of Islam.

"I am not alone, for a delightful garden can be contemplated from this spot. Such a place has never before been seen. This is the palace of crystal, he who looks on it will believe he regards the mighty ocean and will be filled with fear. All this is the work of Iman Ibn Nasar, may God keep his grandeur for other kings. His forebears in ancient time were of the most noble, giving hospitality to the Prophet and his family.-"

Prehistory (c. 3000 BCE-500 CE)

The prehistory of Islamdom is the history of central Afro-Eurasia from Hammurabi of Babylon to the Achaemenid Cyrus II in Persia to Alexander the Great to the Sasanian emperor Nushirvan to Muhammad in Arabia; or, in a Muslim view, from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Moses to Jesus to Muhammad.

The potential for Muslim empire building was established with the rise of the earliest civilizations in western Asia. It was refined with the emergence and spread of what have been called the region's Axial Age religions--Abrahamic, centered on the Hebrew patriarch Abraham, and Mazdean, focused on the Iranian deity Ahura Mazdah--and their later relative, Christianity. It was facilitated by the expansion of trade from eastern Asia to the Mediterranean, and by the political changes thus affected. The Muslims were heirs to the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Hebrews, even the Greeks and Indians; the societies they created bridged time and space, from ancient to modern and from east to west.

The rise of agrarian-based citied societies

In the 7th century CE a coalition of Arab groups, some sedentary and some migratory, inside and outside the Arabian Peninsula, seized political and fiscal control in western Asia, specifically of the lands between the Nile and Oxus (Amu Darya) rivers--territory formerly controlled by the Byzantines in the west and the Sasanians in the east. The factors that surrounded and directed their accomplishment had begun to coalesce long before, with the emergence of agrarian-based citied societies in western Asia in the 4th millennium BCE. The rise of complex agrarian-based societies, such as Sumer, out of a subsistence agricultural and pastoralist environment, involved the founding of cities, the extension of citied power over surrounding villages, and the interaction of both with pastoralists.

This type of social organization offered new possibilities. Agricultural production and intercity trading, particularly in luxury goods, increased. Some individuals were able to take advantage of the manual labor of others to amass enough wealth to patronize a wide range of arts and crafts; of these, a few were able to establish territorial monarchies and foster religious institutions with wider appeal. Gradually the familiar troika of court, temple, and market emerged. The new ruling groups cultivated skills for administering and integrating non-kin-related groups. They benefited from the increased use of writing and, in many cases, from the adoption of a single writing system, such as the cuneiform, for administrative use. New institutions, such as coinage, territorial deities, royal priesthoods, and standing armies, further enhanced their power.

In such town-and-country complexes the pace of change quickened enough so that a well-placed individual might see the effects of his actions in his own lifetime and be stimulated to self-criticism and moral reflection of an unprecedented sort. The religion of these new social entities reflected and supported the new social environments. Unlike the religions of small groups, the religions of complex societies focused on deities, such as Marduk, Isis, or Mithra, whose appeal was not limited to one small area or group and whose powers were much less fragmented. The relationship of earthly existence to the afterlife became more problematic, as evidenced by the elaborate death rites of Pharaonic Egypt. Individual religious action began to compete with communal worship and ritual; sometimes it promised spiritual transformation and transcendence of a new sort, as illustrated in the pan-Mediterranean mystery religions. Yet large-scale organization had introduced social and economic injustices that rulers and religions could address but not resolve. To many, an absolute ruler uniting a plurality of ethnic, religious, and interest groups offered the best hope of justice.


Arabia was the birthplace of the Islamic religion; the Arabic language was the "tongue of the angels," since God chose to reveal himself through that vehicle to Muhammad, the founder of the faith. Arabia would become the center of the Islamic world, and the source of renewal and inspiration for the faithful believers throughout an emerging Islamic empire.

Arabia Before The Prophet

Arabia before the birth of Muhammad had been a culturally isolated and economically underdeveloped region. The Arabian peninsula is one-third the size of the continental United States. Most of the land is arid and desert; rainfall is scarce, vegetation scant, and very little of the land is suitable for agriculture. In the north of the region, several Arabic kingdoms were able to establish contacts with the Byzantine and the Persian Sassanian empires as early as the fifth century A.D. To the south, small Arabic kingdoms, including Saba (Sheba), were ancient centers of Arabic civilization. But in the interior, dotted only with occasional oases, the nomadic life was the only successful existence.

The Bedouins

The nomads, or Bedouins, lived according to ancient tribal patterns; at the head of the tribe was the elder, or sheik, elected and advised by the heads of the related families comprising the tribe. Driven from place to place in their search for pastures to sustain their flocks, the Bedouins led a precarious existence. Aside from maintaining their herds, some relied on plunder from raids on settlements, on passing caravans, and on one another. The Bedouins enjoyed a degree of personal freedom unknown in more agrarian and settled societies. Sheiks could not always limit the freedoms of their tribesmen, who often rode off and hired themselves out as herdsmen or warriors if the authority of the tribe became too restrictive. The Bedouins developed a code of ethics represented in the word muru'ah or manly virtue. Far from brutishness and bragging, muru'ah was proven through grace and restraint, loyalty to obligation and duty, a devotion to do that which must be done, and a respect for women. Bedouin women also enjoyed a great degree of independence. They were allowed to engage in business and commerce; they could choose their own lovers, and conduct their lives without great restriction by the control of their husbands. The freedom and independence of Bedouins sprang from the realities of life in the desert, as did the values and ethics of the Arabs. One rule of conduct was unqualified hospitality to strangers. A nomad never knew when the care of a stranger might be necessary to provide the necessary water and shade to save his or her own life.

The Bedouins of the seventh century lacked a unifying religious system. Most looked at life as a brief time within which to take full advantage of daily pleasure. Ideas of an afterlife were not well defined or described. The Bedouins worshiped a large number of gods and spirits, many of whom were believed to inhabit trees, wells, and stones. Each tribe had its own gods, generally symbolized by sacred stones, which served as altars where communal sacrifices were offered.

Although the Bedouins of the interior led a primitive and largely isolated existence, some parts of Arabia were highly influenced by the neighboring and more highly sophisticated cultures of Byzantium, Persia, and Ethiopia. By the later half of the sixth century Christian and Jewish residents were found throughout the Arabian peninsula; their religious systems and philosophical positions probably had an influence on the Bedouin population.

Early Mecca

On the western side of the Arabian peninsula is a region known as the Hejaz, or "barrier." The Hejaz rises from the western coastal plain from Yemen in the south to the Sinai peninsula in the north. One of the oases in the Hejaz is Mecca, set among the barren hills fifty miles inland from the sea. This site had several advantages: Mecca possessed a well (the Zemzem) of great depth, and two ancient caravan routes met there. An east-to-west route ran from Africa through the peninsula to Iran and Central Asia, and a northwest-southeast route brought the spices of India to the Mediterranean world. Another significant advantage of Mecca was its importance as a religious sanctuary. An ancient temple, an almost square structure built of granite blocks, stood near the well of Mecca. Known as the Kaaba (cube), this square temple contained the sacred Black Stone, which was said to have been brought to Abraham and his son Ishmael by the Angel Gabriel. According to tradition, the stone, probably a meteorite, was originally white but had become blackened by the sins of those touching it.

For centuries the Kaaba had been a holy place of annual pilgrimage for the Arabic tribes and a focal point of Arabic cultural and linguistic unity. The Kaaba itself was draped with the pelts of sacrificial animals, and supposedly held the images and shrines of 360 gods and goddesses.

By the sixth century, Mecca was controlled by the Koraysh tribe, whose rulers organized themselves into syndicates of merchants and wealthy businessmen. The Koraysh held lucrative trading agreements with Byzantine and Persian contacts, as well as with the southern Arabian tribes and the Abyssinians (Ethiopians) across the Red Sea. In addition, a number of neighboring merchant fairs, such as one usually held at Ukaz, were taken over by the Koraysh to extend the economic influence of Mecca. The Koraysh were also concerned with protecting the religious shrine of the Kaaba, in addition to ensuring that the annual pilgrimage of tribes to the holy place would continue as a source of revenue for the merchants of the city.

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