Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

Pre-Islamic Arabs

Steve Muhlberger

One of the most important things that happened in Late Antiquity (or the very early Middle Ages) was a religious development:  the idea of true belief and practice leading to eternal life (the alternative being eternal damnation) had become common.

At the same time the old idea of a covenant between divinity (now often seen as a unique, universal God) and the community of  believers was still alive and well.

The all-embracing claims of  up-to-date monotheistic religions made them attractive, and not just for political reasons.  During the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries, not only the Romans, but the Armenians, the Goths, the Vandals, the Irish, and the Franks adopted Christianity.  To be truly civilized, one must follow the true God.   Persian religion and Judaism could play a similar role.

So where are the Arabs in all this?

The Arabs of later antiquity were only marginally involved in the religious movements of the great empires (though they weren’t completely ignorant of them).  That is because life in Arabia was different from life in places like Iraq, Syria, Egypt, or Persia.

If much of the Middle East is characterized by a delicate balance between settled peoples and nomads or semi-nomads, in most of Arabia, the balance tipped very much towards the nomads (the bedouin, desert people).

Arabia was a disorderly place by the standards of more civilized lands.   But certain things held them together.

Nor is Arabia completely isolated from the core lands of the ME.  Two important connections. During the sixth century A.D., the Arabs became increasingly involved in movements based in the civilized lands.
From 502 A.D., a much more intense conflict between Persia and the Roman empire began, and Arabia was deeply involved.  There were twin satellite kingdoms in the North and competition for control of Yemen.

The involvement of the super-powers in Arabia had its cultural and religious dimension.  Many Arabs were either Jews or Christians during this period.  There were few Arab Christians in the peninsula itself, but the satellite kingdoms had many Christians and the kings were deeply involved in the ecclesiastical politics that disturbed both the Roman and Persian churches.  Jews were perhaps more common in the peninsula.  As far as we know, these “Jewish Arabs” were not immigrant Jews from some other country, but Arabs by birth and speech who had been converted.

The majority of Arabs were still pagans of the old style by the year 600, but the ideas of  monotheism and eternal life, of a single divine law were penetrating.   Even apart from the Jews and Christians, there were prophets and prophetesses teaching an Arab monotheism:  hanifs.

Imagine also Arabia as a country thoroughly disturbed by the political and religious events of the time.  Most scholars attribute the prosperity of Mecca in the 6th century to the increase of caravan trade because  sea routes to Yemen and India were disrupted by war.  Muhammed’s home town, for a long time a religious pilgrimage center, and the site of a great annual poetry festival, became now a flourishing economic center.

But though these changes may have meant riches for some, one gets the feeling that the Arabs were disoriented by them.  For many people, old standards and old traditions did not meet the needs of the modern world.  A time not unlike our own?

The confidence of the Arabs in themselves was deeply affected.  Again, many comparisons can be made within the world of the sixth century, a period when religious questions shook the structure of great empires,  and when private individuals and entire peoples changed religious affiliation in order to get a better grip on the world and on its meaning.  The sixth century was a great era of holy men and women -- to give just one example, it was the era of St. Benedict of Nursia, who wrote a rule for monks that set the standard for religious practice in Western Europe for all time to come.  The Arabs were caught in the same storm, and they would be transformed by it, perhaps more so than any other people of the period.

Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.