The Islamic World to 1600
The Arabian Peninsula - or, simply, Arabia - is a rectangular piece of land surrounded by the Red Sea on the west, the Persian Gulf on the east, and the Arabian Sea to the south. To the north lie Syria and Mesopotamia, lands which saw the birth of both Judaism and Christianity. Many Jewish and Christian influences had penetrated Arabia before the coming of Islam in the 7th century, but the inhabitants of the Peninsula - the Arabs - did not follow either of those religions. Islam, as taught by the Prophet Muhammad, himself an Arab, was the religion that would convert the Arabs en masse to monotheism, or the belief in only one God.
|A Note on Muhammad's Name|
The people who inhabited the Arabian Peninsula - which they called Jazirat al-Arab, or "Island of the Arabs" - were nomads, who survived the harsh desert environment by adhering to a seasonal migration cycle. For four months from June to September, the Arabs waited out the summer heat, until the rains came in October. The eight months until the following summer were then spent travelling between grazing grounds on the desert's fringes. Their travel was eased by the domestication of the camel, which allowed the Arabs access to the harsh Arabian desert.
By about the 5th century, some Arabs (a word which seems to mean "desert dweller") established settlements in the desert and abandoned their nomadic ways. After that, the remaining Arab nomads became known as the Bedouins, while settled Arabs assumed a different identity and refused to acknowledge their shared ancestry with the Bedouins. One settlement that grew in Arabia was Mecca, which later became the birth place of Muhammad, and later still, the holiest city of the Islamic faith.
The nomadic Bedouin population would prove difficult to convert to Islam in the 7th century, not only under Muhammad, but under his successors as well. Much of the Bedouins' reluctance to embrace Islam as quickly as the settled Arabs was due to their strong adherence to traditional religions. The Arabs were polytheistic, meaning they believed in and worshipped more than one god. Different regions of the Arabian Peninsula often had their own patron deity, which usually had its own shrine. Arabs often embarked on pilgrimages to different shrines throughout Arabia. Above their various gods, however, the Arabs also believed in a supreme God, who they called al-ilah, or "the God." The word, contracted as Allah, was later used in Islam as the name of the one and only God. In pre-Islamic Arabia, however, Allah was believed to be not the only God, but simply the highest among many gods.
The Arabs, like the ancient Greeks, were not only polytheists, but they were also humanists. They valued human life for the duration of its time on earth, and they did not subscribe to a belief in any sort of afterlife. Many Arabs rejected Christianity for that reason - the belief in Christ's resurrection was inconceivable, even ridiculous. They believed only in the human world, and the prayers they offered to their gods pertained to that world, not to salvation or redemption in heaven.
Monotheistic religions - those that accept and worship only one God - were present in the Arabian Peninsula before Islam. Judaism and Christianity existed among the populations of southern Arabia, and Judaism was particularly influential in the city of Yathrib, which became known as Medina in Islamic times. Nestorian Christians, driven from the Byzantine Empire in the 5th century over differing opinions of doctrine, settled in Persia and in the northern Arabian Peninsula and converted some Arabs there. Zoroastrian traders from Persia passed through Mecca and other trading centres often enough to exert a small religious influence. Trade also linked the Arab world with Christian Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia) across the Red Sea, which intermittently controlled parts of Yemen and southern Arabia. For the most part, however, the Arabs retained their traditional faith until the emergence of Islam in the 7th century CE.
|Proceed to Muhammad|