Arabia Before Islam: Religion, Society, Culture - Pre-Islamic Arabia

Sunday, September 26, 2021

A DOCUMENTARY Arabia Before Islam: Religion, Society, Culture.

The Arab World is mostly identified with Islam. And for a good reason. Islam was a catalyst of the biggest expansion of the Arabic people in history. It paved the way for the establishment of arguably the most powerful empire of its time, the Islamic Caliphate, which at its zenith ranged from Spain and North Africa in the West to Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent in the East. The Caliphate managed to be one of the most dominant political,  military, scientific, and cultural centers of the world for several centuries, while the religion of Islam remains one of the most important political and societal forces globally.

But what was there before Islam? How did Arab people live,  rule themselves, what did they believe in? Pre-Islamic Arabia was mostly a nomadic society inhabited by constantly moving tribal units.  These Bedouin tribes, some of which maintain their traditional nomadic lifestyle to this day,  had been the most significant political unit of the Arabian peninsula with constantly shifting alliances, never-ending warfare, and rare occurrences of organized and centralized statehood.

These tribes placed heavy emphasis on kin-related groups, families and would roam through the deserts with their livestock mainly comprising of sheep,  goats, and camels, living in tents with their immediate family members.  The tribal leaders enforced unwritten rules of the Bedouin society in the tribe. 

Bedouin tribes were patriarchal as the inheritance passed on to the male offspring,  and women could not inherit property and were virtually rightless, as they could be seized in tribal conflicts as a war spoil and the Bedouin laws allowed the men to marry their captives.

The number of women a man could marry was not fixed.  When a man died, his son “inherited” all his wives except his own mother. Women in tribal Arabia had little say in their marriages, as they would often be arranged between a man and his future wife’s family and the family would receive property like camels or horses in exchange for the bride.

There were also cases of killing of female infants,  as the Muslim Holy Book Quran mentions that the Arabs of the period of ignorance called Jahiliyyah would bury their daughters alive. The Bedouin men often considered women an economic burden and a potential source of embarrassment, as the capture of women of the tribe by hostile tribes was considered humiliating in the conservative Bedouin society.

Under the circumstances of lack of centralized states with rare exceptions, there were no written laws, courts, or law enforcement of any kind to protect the population, thus,  the principal purpose of a Bedouin tribe was to protect its members. Vengeance was sought for the killing of a tribe member by another tribe, which led to virtually constant warfare and conflict.  Protecting your tribe and avenging your kin was a high honor. Harsh living conditions of the Arabian peninsula further enhanced the tribal system and sense of identity within a tribe,  as often their protection and economic cooperation was the difference between death and survival. 

French historian Maxime Rodinson states that “the free Arabs were bound by no written code of law,  and no state existed to enforce its statutes with the backing of a police force.  The only protection for a man's life was the certainty established by custom,  that it would be dearly bought. Blood for blood and a life for a life. The vendetta,  that's in Arabic, is one of the  pillars of Bedouin society.” Austrian historian Gustave E. von Grunebaum  reiterated this and described the state of affairs  in Arabia in the century before the rise of Islam  as “tribal guerrilla fighting, all against all.” 

Tribes would fight against each other, attack and plunder caravans and sedentary settlements,  as lawlessness was the law of the land in most of Arabia. Caravans and sedentary settlements would pay tributes to the raiding Bedouin tribes to avoid their attacks. While most of the tribes in Arabia went on with their nomadic lifestyle, some managed to gain influence over certain territories and switch to sedentary life.

Mecca was practically ruled by the skilled merchants of the Quraysh tribe that took control of the city sometime in the 5th century,  while Yathrib, which was later named Medina, was dominated by the Arab tribes of Aus and Khazraj,  and the Jewish tribes Nadheer, Qaynuqaa,  and Qurayza. While the nomadic Bedouins viewed the sedentary life with contempt and thought of the town-dwellers as a “nation of shopkeepers”, the emergence of cities like  Mecca was the primary cause of the dawn of the common Arab identity in the pre-Islamic period.

The most important cities of the Arabian peninsula Mecca and Yathrib are situated in Hijaz, a region with sufficient water supply, which made it a  logical choice for a sedentary lifestyle in the otherwise punishing climate and terrain of Arabia.  Mecca was an important trade center in the region,  a place through which the caravans would flow, as well as the location of the Kaaba,  the sacred place in Islam, which was also sacred in the polytheistic Arabia,  where the statues of idols and gods of different  Arabic tribes were placed.

The Greek historian  Diodorus Siculus, who lived between 60 and 30  BC, wrote about the isolated region of Arabia in his work Bibliotheca Historica, describing Kaaba as a “Very Holy” temple, which was “exceedingly revered by all Arabians”. For example, the chief deity of the Quraysh tribe and Mecca was Hubal.

The usual trading routes through the Red Sea and the Tigris and Euphrates were disrupted by piracy and the Roman-Persian conflict, and caravans and traders switched to the trade route going through  Mecca. Goods from beyond the Red Sea and of the local Bedouin tribes would be brought to Mecca,  from where the camel caravans would transport them to the Levant.

Meccans signed treaties with the Byzantine Empire and Bedouin tribes for safe passage of their trading caravans.  As the home of the Kaaba, Mecca also carried a  religious significance for the polytheistic Arabs,  as once a year Arabs from all over Arabia would make a pilgrimage to Kaaba and drink from the sacred Zamzam Well.

At this time of the year the conflict would stop, a truce would be declared,  disputes and debts would be resolved and trade happened between different tribes. Thus,  Mecca became a center of a loose confederation of tribes around this city, as guests were obliged to follow the rules in Mecca. The trading potential of Mecca and its religious significance for the  Arabs turned it into a factor bringing Arabs together and forming their national identity. Another important city of Arabia was Yathrib  - Medina.

It was an agricultural center also situated in a fertile region of Hejaz, which allowed the city to become an important transit point for trade caravans traveling along the Red Sea. Initially, Yathrib was dominated by Jewish tribes, but gradually several Arabic tribes moved to Yathrib and gained political and economic influence in the city too.

While  Arabs were mainly engaged in agriculture,  Jews would also be active as businessmen. The rise of cities was inevitably going to lead to the rise of commerce too, and the Rise of commerce was inevitably going to lead to usury, a practice,  which was used both by the Arabs and Jews. This practice would be later prohibited by Islam. We already saw that even in pre-Islamic Arabia religion played an important role in shaping the common Arab identity.

What religion did the Arabs practice before the rise of Islam?  Religion in pre-Islamic Arabia was a mix of polytheism, Christianity, Judaism, and Iranian religions. Arab polytheism or paganism was the most popular belief system.

Each tribe, city, and region could have its own god or idol, which was in a way a patron of that particular community.  Arabs also believed in supernatural beings like djinns. Statues of gods and goddesses would be placed in Kaaba, and some scholars argue that  ALLAH, the deity of Islam, and other Abrahamic religions also had a statue in Kaaba.

There are hadiths, the authenticity of which is disputed,  claiming that Kaaba also had an image of the  Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus with Abraham looking over them. Overall, it is estimated that Kaaba contained up to 360 such statues and images. Trading and political relations with the Byzantine Empire, Ethiopia, Persia,  and other neighboring forces had a role in shaping the religious landscape of Arabia too.  As early as the first century AD Arab traders brought Christianity to Arabia.

Others were evangelized by Paul’s ministry in Arabia and by  St Thomas, followed by a strong influence from the  Byzantine Empire. For example, the Ghassanids, a  vassal kingdom of Rome, converted to Christianity.  In the South of the country, a strong  Christian community emerged in Najran as a result of the influence of the Ethiopian  Christian kingdom of Aksum.

Nestorian Christianity was strong in parts of the country, but the most popular denomination was Monophysitism. Judaism was also a significant part of the religious landscape of Arabia.  As a result of Roman persecution, the migration of Jewish people to Arabia started as early as the 1st century AD.

Many Jews found homes in Hijaz and towns like Yathrib,  Khayber, Fadak, and Umm-ul-Qura.  Many Arabs also converted to Judaism,  as often it was a condition of settling in Jewish-dominated towns of Hijaz.

The Yemeni Himyarite Kingdom converted to Judaism in the 4th century, and some of the Kindah,  a tribe in central Arabia who were the Himyarites’  vassals, were also converted by the 5th century. Sources also inform about a monotheistic religion centered around the worship of a single god of the  Abrahamic religions, but apparently, it was not affiliated with Christianity or Judaism and was probably centered around the prophethood of Abraham.

Followers of this religion were called Hanifi people, and they rejected the idolatry and paganism of the majority of Arabs,  sharing some of the features of other Abrahamic religions like the prohibition of pork. The scope of expansion of the Hanifi people is unclear, but according to some Islamic sources,  the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad,  and some of his future companions belonged to this religion. Arabia also had a small minority following Iran-based religions like Zoroastrianism, Mazdakism, and others spreading under the Persian influence. Earlier we mentioned how in the pre-Islamic period the Arab statehood was relatively rare, as Arabia constantly moved from tribal anarchy to loose state organizations and back again. But there have been a number of notable states in Arabia in the pre-Islamic period mentioned in Greek, Roman,  Mesopotamian, and Persian sources, oral Arab traditions later recorded by Islamic scholars. 

According to the Arab classical writers,  Arabs divided themselves into the Yamanites,  the South Arabs descended from Qahtan and the North Arabs descended from Adnan.  It is interesting that these two groups had certain distinctions and the existence of statehood and political systems were among them.  South Arabia, Yemen had more established states and all of them were ruled as monarchies.  In the North loose tribal confederations or de facto city-states like Mecca was a more prevalent form of statehood.

Such states were ruled as oligarchies and aristocracies.  The South was considered more advanced,  as it was the key route of trade in Arabia, prior to the emergence of Mecca as an alternative, and a higher degree of contacts with outsiders such as Ethiopians. From the fourth century onwards a  reverse process started, as many Southern tribes migrated to the North and underwent the Northern influence. The South Arabian script vanished and the North Arabian proliferated in Arabia.

The Thamud tribe or tribal union was one of the first recorded states in Arabia,  which was a prominent force in Northwestern  Arabia, according to the Assyrian sources related to the 8th century BC and were later used as auxiliary forces by the Roman Empire according to the Roman sources. In the 3rd century BC, the  Greek scholar Eratosthenes mentioned Minaeans,  Sabaeans, Qatabanians, and Hadramites as the main peoples inhabiting the Arabian peninsula.  Historians mention the independent Sabaean Kingdom situated in present-day Yemen, which was later conquered by the Himyarite Kingdom around 280 AD.

The Himyarite Kingdom was one of the most prominent pre-Islamic states of the Arabian peninsula. It was ruled by a monarch,  but in practice, the power in the state was shared with the regional governors,  which had a high degree of autonomy, a system akin to the medieval era European kingdoms.

By the early 4th century AD the Himyarite Kingdom ruled over Southern Arabia and expanded North to Najran.  Originally polytheistic Himyarites became monotheistic sometime in the 4th century with a belief in the Abrahamic God. At the end of the fifth century the Himyarite king Abu  Kariba adopted Judaism as his faith. His son and successor Yusuf Dhu Nuwas were even more zealous,  as he started persecuting Christians living in the Kingdom.

This proved to be the undoing of the  Himyarite dynasty as Dhu Nuwas was either killed or committed suicide after being defeated by the  Christian Coalition of the Ethiopian Kingdom of  Aksum, the Byzantine Empire, and South Arabian  Christians in 524. Christian Ethiopians then took control of South Arabia, built a church in Sana in an attempt to attract pilgrims, and hence trade to Sana in place of Mecca. This caused a conflict between Abraha, the Ethiopian viceroy in Yemen,  and Mecca mentioned in the Quran. Apparently,  Abraha used war elephants against Mecca, but was unsuccessful and had to turn back.

The second part of the 6th century was notable for the power struggle between Ethiopians and Sasanid for control over the remainder of the Himyarite  Kingdom, in which the Persian empire succeeded. Another prominent pre-Islamic state organization in Arabia was the Kinda Kingdom, the first state in central Arabia recorded by history,  which came to existence after the Kinda tribe managed to unite all tribes in Najd around the late 5th century.

The Kinda Kingdom attempted a  number of successful raids on the Byzantine territories in North Arabia, but similar endeavors against the Sasanid Empire failed,  when in 529 the Lakhmid vassals of the Persians defeated and killed the Kindan king al-Harit bin  Amr, which caused the decline of this state.

The aforementioned Lakhmid Kingdom was established in East Arabia by the Banu Lakhm tribe around the 3rd-4th centuries. Initially, independent  Lakhmids were threatening the coastal cities of the Sassanid empire and in 325 the Sassanid emperor Shapur II began a campaign against them.  Soon the Lakhmid capital Hira was taken under control of the Sasanids. Since then the Lakhmid kingdom became vassals of the Sasanid Empire until it was annexed by them in the early 7th century. The Ghassanid Kingdom had a similar fate.

 Some time in the 3rd century AD part of the Al-Azd tribe migrated from Yemen to the  Levant and established the Ghassanid Kingdom as a vassal of the Eastern Roman Empire with a capital of Jabiyah in the Golan Heights.  The Ghassanid Kingdom ceased its existence in the period of early Islamic expansion. But none of these kingdoms were powerful and centralized enough to unite Arabs in one state and protect the realm from foreign attacks.  Most of Arabia was governed by unwritten rules of the Bedouin society causing warfare and despair amidst already harsh living conditions.  The pre-Islamic Arabs might have shared similar language and traditions, but they were divided by tribal identities, blood revenge, and religions.  But very soon Arabia and beyond would be transformed by a momentous process of emergence of  Islam and the creation of a unified Arabic state.

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