What Was Special About Pre-Islamic Arabia?
In the early 600s, a new religious and political force arose out of the deserts of Arabia. Islam, spearheaded by Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, quickly became the way of life for the entire Arabian Peninsula within a few years of the first revelations. By the end of the reigns of the first four caliphs, the Islamic realm extended from Libya in the West to Persia in the East. And just 100 years after the death of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, Muslims had expanded the empire into Spain and India.
Throughout world history, no other movement has grown as fast as Islam did in its first 100 years. What was special about Islam and the conditions it was born into that allowed it to grow so rapidly? Some historians attempt to offer simplistic explanations about why Islam spread so fast such as drought in the Arabian Peninsula, constant in-fighting among the Arabs, and Arab pride/nationalism. The truth is of course much more complex and nuanced than a simple one-line slogan. In fact, the Arabian Peninsula and the surrounding lands were perfectly prepared for the arrival of a powerful monotheistic and uniting force. The culture, language, geography, and politics of the Middle East could not have been better situated for the arrival of Islam in the early 600s.
The Geopolitics of the Arabian Peninsula
The Arabian Peninsula can be an unforgiving, punishing land. It has no permanent rivers, streams, or lakes. The main source of life are the sparse oases that dot the landscape. Travelling through the desert is a difficult feat to accomplish, and even today there are parts of it that are devoid of any population, due to its lack of water life.
This barren land worked as a buffer between the Arabs and other peoples beyond the Arabian Peninsula. Indeed, the Peninsula had been known as Jazirat al-Arab, the “Island of the Arabs”, by the pre-Islamic Arabs. It was called an island because of how isolated it was from the outside world. Only a hardened and trained Arab could manage to survive in this wilderness. Outsiders could never hope to come into the Peninsula and establish themselves. There were, however, two major empires attempted just that.
Before the arrival of Islam, there was no major world power that dominated the Arabian Peninsula. The Romans dominated the Mediterranean Sea, and were by far the most powerful empire in the ancient world, and if anyone could have conquered Arabia, it would have been them. They attempted to expand their realm in 24 B.C. with an invasion of the Arabian Peninsula, but it turned out to be an utter failure. The famed Roman legions could be effective in Mediterranean climates, but not the deserts of Arabia. The Romans never managed to extend their control past the northern border lands of the Arabian Desert.
The other major power of the pre-Islamic world was the Persian Empire. Situated to the North and East of the Arabian Peninsula, it also attempted to dominate the area, which brought it into almost constant conflict with the Romans. In this epic back-and-forth between the Romans and the Persians, the lands of Syria and Iraq served as the front lines. Because each side was able to check the advance of the other, neither was able to extend control into Arabia itself.
With their northern neighbors constantly at war, the Arabs were for the most part, independent. This isolation meant that the Arabs did not have to deal with the political issues of far-off empires. They could live without any overlordship and create their own political institutions. What developed was a decentralized nature to Arab political control that maximized individual and family freedom. Tribal allegiance was the strongest political force of the peninsula, and the dozens of tribes that roamed the desert managed to live a simple lifestyle based on nomadic grazing, trading, or both.
Culture and Language
The culture of the Arabs was intimately attached to the geographic realities they were living in. The harsh desert was not a place to be alone in. Reliance on relatives was the first line of defense against the famine and heat that constantly threatened survival. As such, the family (and by extension, the tribe) served as the most important unit within Arab society. Also as a reaction to the desert, hospitality played a major role in Arab culture. Guests were to be given automatic protection if they ask for it, even if fleeing from an enemy. The cultural norms of protecting your family and providing for guests were well established in Arab culture by the early 600s A.D.
When it came to religion, the Arabs before Islam were fiercely polytheistic. Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son Ismail (Ishmael) had introduced monotheism to the Arabs and built the Ka’bah, probably around 1800 B.C. Over the centuries, however, the Arabs distorted his message of monotheism and introduced numerous lesser gods, represented by idols. Ironically, they still accepted the ultimate authority of Allah, but believed that lesser gods shared in His power. The Ka’bah had transformed from a mosque intended to worship the One God, to a temple for over 360 idols that the Arab tribes venerated.
The Arabs’ greatest cultural jewel, however, was their language. In the desert, there was limited opportunity for artistic expression. Unlike the Romans and Greeks, sculpture and painting simply wasn’t practical, and was not practiced except for the creation of idols. Instead, poetry emerged as the highest form of artistic expression among the Arabs. The Arabic language developed to be very fluid and rhythmical, making it a perfect language to write poetry in. The best poets would gather once a year in Makkah to recite their latest works. The most popular among them would become instant celebrities among the Arabs, renowned for their poetic ability.
How Does This Relate to the Rise of Islam?
When a respected man of the tribe of Quraysh began to preach a new, monotheistic religion in the year 610 in Makkah, no one could have imagined how the geographic, political, and cultural setting was perfect for this message to spread. Within a few years, however, the unique nature of this message, coupled with the environment it came down into, left no doubt in the hearts of believers of the divinely-planned setting that sprung Islam to be the leading religious and political force of the world within 100 years.
Geopolitically, the Arabian isolation from the Romans and the Persians created the perfect environment for Islam to grow in before being exposed to the outside world. Had Makkah been dominated by the Romans or Persians during the life of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, his ability to spread the message would have been severely hampered. The Romans were (in the 7th century) strongly Christian, with little toleration for other faiths. Conversely, the decentralized nature of Arab politics allowed the Prophet ﷺ to preach without having to deal with a strong political authority that opposed him. Although Quraysh attempted to stifle the message in the early years, they were one tribe among many, and all Prophet Muhammad ﷺ had to do was escape to Madinah in 622 (where the Arab rules of hospitality protected him), far from Quraysh’s political authority. The geographic and thus political isolation of the Arabian Peninsula, the Island of the Arabs, could not have been more suited for the controversial and radically different message of the Prophet ﷺ.
Furthermore, after the death of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, as the early Muslims began to expand northwards, they encountered two crumbling empires. Both the Romans and the Persians were depleted by years of warfare, and their control over their territory was fragile at best. Economic, political, and military weakness meant the new Muslim armies could easily defeat the established empires and expand Muslim political authority to new lands in the Middle East and beyond.
The Arabian Peninsula was also culturally a perfect place for Islam to spread. Ties of family were the strongest bonds to be found in Makkah in the early 600s, so when Muhammad ﷺ incurred the displeasure of the polytheists, he relied on the protection of his family, particularly his uncle, Abu Talib. Despite never believing the message of Islam, Abu Talib considered it his familial duty to protect his nephew from those that wanted to cause him harm. Had it not been for this cultural norm dictating the protection of family members, Prophet Muhammad ﷺ could have been silenced by the Qurayshi polytheists who felt threatened by the new religion in the early years of his prophethood.
As was previously stated, the Arabs were polytheists up until the arrival of Islam, yet they still had some understanding of the monotheistic message of Prophet Ibrahim. Thus, when Prophet Muhammad ﷺ came with the monotheistic message, it recalled to the Arabs their previous monotheistic beliefs they learned from Prophet Ibrahim. However, the Muslim profession of faith, “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger” demanded they rid themselves of their idols and revert back to pure monotheism. As it turned out, doing so was not very difficult for many of them. It re-instilled in them a sense or original purity of faith, that they had lost over the centuries.
At the same time, the polytheistic nature of the Arabs confirmed a miraculous aspect of the revelation. Although far removed from the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Christianity, which were primarily found in the Roman Empire, the holy book that was sent to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, the Quran, had the same stories and prophets detailed in it. Without divine-inspiration, there could be no way for Muhammad ﷺ to know about people such as Adam, Musa (Moses), Yusuf (Joseph), and Isa (Jesus). And yet, in the middle of the polytheistic idol-worshiping Arab world, came a prophet who had knowledge of earlier prophets and was the final one in that chain. For many, particularly the Jews of the Hejaz, this message in this setting proved to be miraculous, especially since there was no way Prophet Muhammad ﷺ could have read their Torah, on account of him being unable to read, and their unwillingness to share their books with outsiders.
Lastly, the poetic nature of the Quran fit perfectly in with the poetic nature of the Arabs. For a society which prized poetic ability more than anything else, and where poets constantly competed with each other in writing perfectly rhythmical verses, the Quran proved to be far superior to any poetic ability of any human. Had the Quran been sent to a group of people who were not as poetically inclined, it would not have been seen as a miracle worth following. But for the Arabs, there was no doubting the divine nature of the holy book, which created a strong fervor in their hearts to spread this message that they wholeheartedly believed to be true.
In conclusion, the setting in which Prophet Muhammad ﷺ appeared in the early 600s proved to be perfectly suited for the arrival of Islam. Geographically isolated from the major superpowers of the day, culturally ready for the tumultuous life of the Prophet ﷺ, and linguistically prepared for the divinely poetic Quran, there was no place or time in the world that was a more perfect environment for Islam to take root. For Muslims, all of this serves as proof that the arrival and expansion of Islam was no accident, but was perfectly set up by God. Non-Muslim historians, however, have trouble explaining the rapid growth and spread of Islam in secular terms. It simply does not fit in the with the typical pattern seen in the growth of other religions in world history. There can be no denying, however, the perfection of the setting, culture, and political landscape that Islam was born into in the early 600s.
Hodgson, M. G. S. The Venture of Islam, Conscience and History in a World Civilization. 1. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1974.
Hourani, Albert Habib. A History Of The Arab Peoples. New York: Mjf Books, 1997. Print.
Kennedy, Hugh. The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007. Print.
Saunders, JJ. A History of Medieval Islam. London: Routledge, 1965. Print.
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