To Understand the events that led to the birth and rise of what became an
Empire in a very short time, it is necessary to understand the events that
preceded the period of the “prophet”.
The people of what would have become the Islamic world can be divided into
four linguistic families that derive from a common source.
These four families can be classified as :
The first two, Semitic and Hamitic derive from the so called Afro-asiatic.;
This form derived form Northwestern Africa, utilized approx. 8,000 years
ago. Subsequently divided into the two above: Hamitic, which became spoken
in north Africa and assumed the characteristics of the known Coptic
language. The second, Semitic1 was and is spoken in Arabia and Persia.
Three surviving semitic languages are::
The earliest Semitic speakers appeared in Mesopotamia around 3,000-2,000
B.C. These speakers were the Sumerian civilization, or better said the
one’s that started everything in regards to writing, art forms, city
The Sumerians we’re taken over by the Akkadians. The Akkadians adopted the
Sumeric writing system. The Akkadian Empire was destroyed by Alexander the
Great in 330 BC. This was then followed by waves of other semitic invaders.
The centers for the other semitic languages were: Syria, Phoenicia,
Israel, Palestine, parts of Asia Minor and Jordan. These modern day
countries are part of the Canaanite sub-grouping. Closely related to these
languages is Aramaic, which is still spoken today in some minorities.
Other languages that derived from this group are North Arabic and South
Arabic. N. Arabic is today’s classical Arabic. S. Arabic was spoken in
Yemen and survives today only in a couple of Dialects even though it had
produced a large literature that unfortunately hasn’t survived except for
on some writings or monuments. Also Ethiopian is related to S. Arabic.
The Semitic Languages have produced a number of common origins. All
the people of the areas described above adopted a common language form in
order to communicate. Prior to Arabic, which became the common language of
these areas in the Middle Ages, the spoken tongue was Aramaic.
. The languages deriving from Indo-European which expanded over a
greater stretch of land thanks to the populations of the “Horse Culture”
can be divided into more groups: Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, Albanian, Greek,
Iranian and Old Persian which was the the one official language of the
Akkadian Empire. After the conquest of Alexander the Great Old Persian
became Middle Persian.
Middle Persian was the official language of the Great Sasanid Empire
until the year 651, year in which the Arabs conquered the Empire.
The last Group of languages falls under the category of the Altaic2
Arabia: Was very distant from Mesopotamia which was the center of
civilization and culture in ancient times. At these times it must be
remembered that people moved as fast as their feet, a horse or camel could
take them. This is to say that there was very little contact between Arabia
On the eve of the rise of Islam there were two super powers: The
Sasans, and the Byzantines which were the remnant of the great Roman
Empire. The Arabs would conquer much of what was the Byzantine Empire; they
would completely absorb the Sasanide Empire.
The Sasans were the major power to the east on the rise of the Muslim
Who were the Sasans?:
They considered themselves as heirs of the Achaemenid Dynasty which
ruled the Iranian Empire, and of the Parthians who were part of another
Iranian State. All of the Sasan states were of Iranian origins which meant
that at one time they were nomads, or better said these people were Nomad
in origin. The Monarchic house resided in a special clan that had a special
charisma for rule. The Rulers were portrayed with a Nimbus3. Somehow it
was thought that the rulers irradiated light. The Ruler was called “King of
Kings”, he was in contact with the world of the Gods. The Administration
had a certain Hierarchy: The Ruler was first of all; he was followed by the
Burocrats. After these were the Spies or agents who controlled the
faithfulness of the subjects in order to keep secure control of the land.
When the Sasans came to power4, they modernized all the traditions
of their predecessors. They were originally a warlike dynasty and when they
couldn’t expand anymore their Dynasty began to weaken. The monarchy was
then made elective. The official religion of the state was
Zoroastrianism5. This was never fully formed as a religion until the
Sasans made a reform. There were many preist because the religion was very
much part of the state; when the State collapsed , the religion also
collapsed with time, even though it still lives today in some minorities.
As told earlier, the sasanid society was very rigid in a hierarchical
sense. If you were born in a class you stayed in it. This social
differentiation caused quite a few problems. An exceptional example is the
revolt led by Mazdak6; a peasant who staged a bloody revolt and almost
toppled the Dynasty .
The Monarchy recovered with Kushran (531-576 AD). He regularized the
tax system and borrowed many qualities from the neighboring Romans. Among
the Taxes he established the Karga which was similar to the later Khara7
in Arab Islam. They also established tha Head tax, that would also surface
in Islam as the Jizya. It is interesting to point out that already there
are tax similarities between the Sasans and the Muslims. A chief minister
of the Sasan empire would later be a kind of Grand Visir in later Muslim
Under Kusran Iran reached it’s apex. His successor was faced with more
revolts, was deposed and was succeded by Kusran II. This is the figure that
is active during the life of the Prophet.
Who were the Byzantines?:
Late in the 3rd-4th centuries the Great roman empire is rocked by a
shift of dynasty. In 324-337, The emperor Constantine founded
Constantinople. This allowed for greater stability in the east of the
Empire and greater wealth. The great problem was the ethnic diversity of
the Eastern Roman Empire where Latin and Greek were the principal
languages. The Areas ruled by the Romans weren’t happy. Egypt was the
largest colony of the Roman empire, and the most important in regards to
agriculture8. The Roman government never demanded uniformity and
citizenship was universal . In 395 AD Christianity was declared the
official religion of the Empire. The empire was in a grave economic crisis
produced by the enserfment of peasants. This produced a general sense of
economic discontent. Apart from this, The empire was constantly under
attack from all sides. In 476 The Western Roman Empire collapsed. The
Eastern side of the empire continued and rebounded under the rule of
Emperor Justinian I. He began a program of conquest that reunited some
parts of the Empire. By his death it seemed that things had gone back to
normality, but reality was different. When Heraclius came to power and
defeated the Sasans, the Roman empire was exausted.
The Sasanides were at war with the Romans. When the Byzantine emperor
Maurichius died, the Sasans claimed the right to the throne of Byzantium
and conquered some of the empire in the southern part. This part of he
empire included the Holy land. In 610 AD Heracluis came to the throne of
the Roman Empire. He revised the authority in the East and made deals with
the powerful Turkik empire to destroy the Sasans.
In 628-642 After extenuating wars with the Romans the Sasans are in a State
of Anarchy. This favored the quick advance for the Muslims who were
beginning their raids in that period.
Was divided in two zones (Geographically and Ethnically).
The North called “Arabia Deserta”; An area sparse in population
ponctuated here and there with oasis. Was home of nomadic tribes as well
as agriculturalist who settled down in Oasis’s . The Earliest mention of
the Arabs appears when an Assyrian king conquered a people led by a man
called Arami(840 BC) Later rulers later made conquests in these areas and
induced the nomads to pay them tribute ( it is not clear what kind of
tribute), but these areas were never incorporated into any of the empires.
Arabia Felix-South Arabia- referred to by the Romans as “Arabia Felix”. Not
a desert area and site of a very highly developed civilization. It was
divided into four Agricultural and sea-faring states: Ma’in; Saba,
There are references to the Arabs in the Old Testament. Alex the great
never conquered the area. The romans made an attempt to conquer Yemen in 24
Yemen was the center of trades and was located on the main trade route
of that time: The Indian Ocean. To maintain this centrality, they kept a
monopoly of trade by keeping the information on the Indian Ocean a secret.
The Monopoly of knowledge regarded the shipping routes and the cultivation
of certain items.
In Arabia there were no wheeled vehicles because of the desert, Camels
were used for transportation because of their adaptation to that kind of
terrain. Because Yemen was faced with the task of protecting and
supervising trade routes, caravan routes, etc…; a well organized
governmental system developed. All of the states that developed in that
area began as a Theocracy. These theocracies were run by priest-Kings9.
In time the Mukarrib lost their place to actual kings. There were also
powerful tribe chieftans that would share their power with the Mukarrib.
Most of these tribes had become sedentary. The tribal members were divided
into classes all the way down to the slaves.
In time, as the great empires began to be interested in the Area, the
structures of these states begun to solidify in order to defend themselves.
In the year 115 BC, a powerful tribal union called the Himyar began the
process of unifying the whole of the south and completed this task around
300 AD. There was a feudal type of government.
They had also developed a system of holy areas and of religious
A threatening situation came from Ethiopia which had converted to
Christianity in the 4th century and had become a representative of Roman
power. Ethiopia was challenged by Iran (Zoroastrians), especially because
of the religious representation. Iranian interest in the area were
represented by the Jews as rivals to Christianity.
Yemen was therefore caught between the Ethiopian-Romans (Christians)
and the Iranians (Zoroastrians). Interaction began with Noth-eastern
Arabia. Trade in Frankincense had declined, and the economy was changing.
The trade now consisted mostly in cloth (silk from the East). In 340 AD
the Area was thrown up into the air; The Ethiopians conquer Yemen for two
generations but are then thrown back by the returning Hemiorite kings;
these returned very biased in regards to Christianity. Yemen therefore
divided int o different religions. In 520 AD, the Ethiopians destroyed the
Hemiorite dynasty by killing the last king (Dhu Nuwas). In 575 The Persians
take over the area presenting themselves as liberators.
628- Muslim conquests.
South Arabia preserved elements of the original Semitic Civilization and
it’s commercial activities laid the foundations for the traditional Islamic
scholarship, and the strife that would open the way for the rise of Islam.
Arabia Deserta- The population was scattered and physically it is a very
difficult country. The tribes that had become sedentary, were only too
recently sedentary. There appears a continual dynamism between the nomads
and the sedentary world. The Nomads often raided the sedentary societies.
In the 4th Century BC a sedentary society, the Nabateans, founded Petra.
These people retained their original language encen though the settled down
in a foreign territory. They were the Midway station between rome and the
Arabian world because of the script they developed. They developed a script
for Aramaic and developed a writing system that would eventually be the
future Arabic script.
As Petra Declined another city-state appeared: Palmyra. It was located
in the Syrian Desert; it was a midway post between the Romans and the
Persians. Under the Emperor Adrian it was a State under Roman hegemony.
Because of it’s critical position, the city was made “Dux Orientis”, under
it’s leader Odhenathus10 . This man became too powerful in the eyes of
the Romans and therefore he was assassinated. After his assassination, his
wife took over. Her name was Zenobia. She became very powerful and caused
many problems. When she was finally defeated by the Romans, they razed
Palmyra to the ground.
There were two major Arab tribe unions: The house of Ghassan and the
house of Lakhm. These houses together with the Kinda were very famous
dynasties and there are many accounts of their deeds. The Ghassanids were
clients of Rome and protectors of the borders in the East. They had
migrated from Arabia proper and established themselves between Syria and
Israel. The had adopted Christianity in their Eastern form.. The Lakhmedes
protected the Sasan borders in the West. They had migrated from farther
south of Arabia in the 3rd cent. BC. They established their camps between
the ‘Iraqi’ and Syrian borders. They were well established by the 3rd cent
AD and some of them had adopted Christianity.
In the 6th century the two tribes fought a major war. This war had
fateful consequences. The Ghassanides won the war but had lost the trust of
the Romans. This led the Romans to undermine them. Because of this that
region became unstable. In the year 602 the Byzantine emperor Maurice was
assassinated. The Sasans see this as an opportunity to expand and using
their tie to Maurice pretend to have the right to the Byzantine empire and
they conquer the South Eastern part of the Byzantine empire. The emperor
that followed Maurice re-conquered the lands lost to the Persians. To do
this in the year 620, he formed an alliance with a Turkic tribe originally
from Southern Siberia and Mongolia.
This warfare had disrupted the Byzantine defense systems do by the
early 7th century the major Dynasties that served as intermediaries between
the Arab and the Roman world had disappeared. The Arabs knew that these
Empires would expand in their direction and they felt menaced by this.
The tensions that existed between the Nomads and the sedentary
populations had stabilized. They now lived on commerce or Oasis
agriculture. The Sedentary clans had settled in oases over a large stretch
of land. The nomads were very important for the agricultural trade. The
‘farmers’ had to work out deals with the Bedouins so that they would not be
raided. The Bedouins offered the oasis clans protection from other Bedouins
and from themselves. If the ‘Farmers’ didn’t have protection, their
commerce caravans and their lands would be raided. At this time Arabic
language was divided into various dialects but there was a union in
literature. The Arabic speaking population is therefore coming together
through a common linguistic identity.
There were three Urban centers in Northern Arabia: Mecca, At’taif, Medina.
Mecca: From early on it was a city associated with religion and cult in
particular because of the KA’ABA. It was a center of pilgrimage. The people
of Mecca encouraged this and they tried to have people come into the city
so that the inhabitants of Mecca would gain form it economically, some kind
of religious tourism. People that went to Mecca brought money and the rich
and powerful of Mecca lived for and from this religious tourism. According
to a recent theory Mecca was also an important transitory town for the
spices that came form the South. The Meccans also sponsored a fair or
‘world fair’ of the time.
The Bedouins were becoming increasingly associated with Mecca both
economically and culturally. Mecca was also a midway point between the
cities of Yathrib12 and Najron13.
Medina: Had a very large Jewish population comprised of three tribes who
actually in power for some time. The name ‘Medina’ was probably the name
used by the Arab Jews of the area. It is located approx. 300 miles north of
Mecca. It was not only a spice center but also an important agricultural
center. The 3 major tribes were all engaged in agriculture.
Religious Beliefs of the Arabs:
Northern Arabs didn’t leave a religious text behind prior to Islam.
They originally worshipped stars (being desert people). This religion was
organized into various temples. There was also Sun-worship. In Southern
Arabia there was the cult of ‘Ishtar’; he was the protector of the land,
this was a cult of the lord of the Heavens and Earth. Among the Bedouins
there was basic animism, which means that everything has a force within it.
There was also the worship of trees, worship of wells and other things that
are rare in the desert. Worship of caves that were considered holy places.
There was also a belief in Demons that were called ‘Jinn’. The ‘Jinn’ could
take over the mind of a person and drive him/her crazy.
Mecca was the site of a holy sanctuary. The territory was considered
neutral and was associated to a holy man. Blood could not be shed in this
territory. As a consequence this was an area of parley between enemies;
this concept ant-dates Islam. By the 6th century there was an attempt to
make Mecca a meeting place for all the Gods that were worshipped because it
would have been very convenient for the ‘Meccans’. There was a Triad of
Goddesses that became an object of common interest these three goddesses
were the three daughters of ‘Allah’. What the ‘Meccans’ were doing was to
blend together all of the different beliefs and bringing some kind of order
or ‘syncretism’ to bring a sense out of all the orgy of religions. Mecca
was also probably involved in promoting truce; months in which killing was
forbidden, pilgrimages, or anything that would help against the endemic
Age of ignorance: (this is a theory!!!)
How is a new religion born? Mecca had become wealthy as a consequence of
trade; the older traditions were therefore under attack. Under this new
social policy, one’s obligations were to oneself. This led to social,
economic and religious discontent. The people that were hurt by the new
economy began to look for a new ideology. People began to turn towards
universalistic religions, specifically to those that concerned individual
salvation. Judaism and Christianity were already present in the area and
could blend in with the local culture. Arabs already had the tradition of
being descendants of Abraham; therefore they had a connection to Judaism
and Christianity. Was this something that represented an older tradition or
something that came from ‘current’ influence? The complication with Judaism
and Christianity was that these religions represented foreign empires.
Christianity was rooted in nearby Ethiopia, and Judaism in nearby Iran. The
Roman Empire and the Sasans were fighting and there was fear that one of
these would penetrate into Arabia. There was also a tradition of tribal
‘seers” or Kahin. These were people who had some kind of religious
function, a type of wizard or sciaman. Every tribe had its ‘Kahin’. The
Kahin was someone who gave some sense to the future or helped to see what
was in store.
The ‘Hanif’ were the early kind of monotheist that already existed in
this time. They had ideas of looking for the one true God. Some had already
identified this true God with Allah. These were preparing the ground for
Arab society was undergoing some kind of crisis as a result of socio-
political-economical changes. Was this a result of the ‘Commercial
revolution’? It is possible; something was producing spiritual unrest and
this brought about the opening to Islam.
-The old tribal society was in crisis, there was constant fighting among
the clans, vendettas, blood feuds, the clan was responsible for avenging
insults- violence begets more violence. This havoc made the area unsettled
and this is the society into which Muhammad was born.
The Life of Muhammad:
There are a few self-referential passages in the Qumran. There is the
‘Hadith’ which is a saying or action that has been transmitted from that
time coming from the ‘Prophet’ and the people around him.
The ‘Hadith’s’ were transmitted orally for 150 years and grew into many. By
the time they were collected there weren’t hundreds but tens of thousands.
Out of this orgy of Hadith’s they pulled out about 1000 that were ‘sound’.
This was a problem for early Muslim scholars because there was no unanimity
of opinion among them.
The earliest Biography of Mohammed was composed in the latter half of
the 8th century; it was composed completely of Hadith’s. The Original
version composed by ‘Ibn-Ishab’, has disappeared. The one that has survived
is a remake by the same author. The second was made in the 10th century by
Al-Tabari . ost biographies can be considered a composition of pious
What picture emerges from these sources?
570- Muhammad is born into the clan of the ‘Hashim’ (still around today in
Jordan). This clan was fairly important and was part of a larger tribal
entity called ‘Quraysh’. They were among the descendants of ‘Qussayy’ who
was the holy man associated with the sanctuary of Mecca. Under the
leadership of Qussayy the Quraysh had come into control of Mecca in the
early fifth century. The sanctuary became an important religious center and
also the center of a trading network between Syria and Iran. All the tribes
recognized Mecca as having a special status.
Hashim, Muhammad’s grand-father, was responsible for the trade route
to Gaza he is also credited with arranging tribal alliances, promoting the
sacred months, “publicizing” the importance of Mecca. In this period Mecca
is viewed as a special abode of religious strictness.14 The procession
of gods worshipped in Mecca was headed by a god called ‘Allah’. Mecca’s
importance grew with the conquest of Persia. One of the functions of the
men of Mecca was that of peace-makers.
In the year 610 the Persians tried to make a hold on Arab territory, they
failed; this event made people look to Mecca as a leader or as and
All food had to be imported into Mecca because the harsh terrain
surrounding it impedes agriculture. The Hashim, though being direct
descendants of Qussayy, were not the most powerful clan of Mecca. The
‘Umayya’ was the most powerful clan; they were cousins of the Hashim.
The ‘Umayya’s were the most powerful of the merchant clans; they were the
dominant political and economic source of the city. They will also be the
principal opponents of Muhammad after he begins to preach the
‘revelations’. There was a division between the smaller less powerful
clans and the richer. This ‘social differentiation’ is an important factor
in this society. There were constant tensions between the Nomads and the
townspeople. The Nomads looked downwards on the townspeople but looked onto
the merchants because they needed them. In this society anything that
involved blood was considered a low practice. For example Barbers were
considered low; people who performed circumcisions; or leather tanners.
The social groups may be divided into three: -those who had honor and
the ability to defend themselves.
-and the weak who were in a type of servile status.
Muhammad’s clan enjoyed Honor. This was t he upper stratus of society. The
Hashim had status. They were a house which had standing in society.
Mohammad: His father died before his birth while on a commercial trip to
Syria. His mother died when he was 6 years if age. He was then raised by
his grandfather and uncle. He was an orphan in a clan that was not
particularly powerful so it is safe to conclude that his life wasn’t
without complications. At 25 years of age he married a wealthy widow15.
It is said that she was quite a few years older that him. She bore him a
number of children. He had previously worked for her and developed a fame
of honesty and then began working as a travel merchant. At this time life
was going pretty well and this gave Muhammad time for meditation. He would
retire to a cave for meditation.
610- when he was “forty years of age”(?) in the course of one of his
retreats he heard voices. He was at first terrified, but then came to
accept these as revelations of monotheism. This conception was pretty
revolutionary for a polytheistic society.
These revelations speak of the necessity of a social obligation, and the
rich should help the poor. He is somehow responding to the social strife of
the period. These revelations are the ‘Qur’an’.
Muhammad shares his thoughts with his wife and his cousin Ali, his
freed man and his kinsman Abu-Bakr; these are the first converts to Islam.
As he began to preach his message more openly he ran into trouble with the
Umayya clan in particular with Abu-Sufyan16. Abu-Sufyan saw a threat to
the economic interest of the Quraysh. They were the custodians of the
Ka’aba. He feared that Mecca wouldn’t be considered as a religious center
for all the God’s worshipped. The political and economical implications of
Muhammad’s concept would stop them form making money. Basically Monotheism
wasn’t for Mecca. The economic well being of the Meccans would be destroyed
by anything that interfered with the old religion.
It was a time of conflict. How do you deal with Muhammad? This was
Abu-Sufyans problem. The first attempt was done by trying to make Muhammad
his friend. He would ask him to calm down with the preaching and in return
he would have been moved up the ranks. This cooptation wasn’t successful.
Then they tried to offer an alternative message by saying “why only one
god?” They said that acceptance of anew religion would alienate them from
their ancestors. Muhammad said that anyone who would not convert to his
religion would go to Hell. He was firm in his message. It also had ideas
for political and economic reform. The message that the rich should help
the poor and that blood ties should be replaced by a common faith. This
message gained adherence.
Abu-Sufyan knew not what to do anymore so he orders a boycott of
Muhammad’s entire clan. They figure that this would force his relatives to
withdraw the clans protection from him, so that Sufyan could either kill
him or make him do what he wanted. The Hashim however do not withdraw their
protection even though they were horrified by Muhammad’s statements.
In the year 619 Abu-Talib, Muhammad’s uncle and clan head dies. His
wife Khadija also dies in that year. Another Uncle takes the leadership of
the Hashim. He was less sympathetic with Muhammad and revokes the clan
protection from him. Muhammad is able to secure the protection of another
In 620, some 70 members of the Khazraj,17 came to Mecca and invited
Muhammad to go there to serve as an ‘arbiter’. They were prepared to
accept his religious members. The people of Medina had already been in
contact with Jewish tribes. The situation in Medina was very complicated:
Two arab tribes dominated the Oasis, the Aws and Khazraj. There was
friction among and between these two houses. When Muh. came t oMedina the
Aws were in power.
622- Small groups of his followers left and went to Medina, probably
secretly. This going from Mecca to Medina of Muhammad and his companions
is called the ‘HIJRA’ which means emigration- to sever a relationship with
one group and establishing another.
In sept. of 622 Muhammad reaches Yathrib. Once he left Mecca all tribal
protection ceased, so once on route he could have been killed. From this
date the muslims begin their calendar. The year of the Hijra is year 1 for
1 Siriac-sub-semitic language that produced a rich literature that is
both religious and secular.
2 Forms of language spoken in the old Manchuria and Mongolia
4 222-226 AD
5 Developed from the teachings of Zoroaster (Zarathustra). It is not
sure where he lived, he is dated as late as to 12,000 BC; 1000 BC; 600 BC
… It is believed that he was original from Uzbekistan; He took the
ancient Iranian religious tradition and reformed it turning it into a “Dual
Ethinism”. Two major antagonistic forces. Belief in a supreme deity called
Ahura Mazda conceived as being engaged in a constant cosmic struggle with
Ahriman, source of all evil.
6 The revolt wanted the complete communization of property (women
7 Tax on Land
8 Lapidus: “The formation of Islam”
9 Murakkib or Mukarrib
10 Udhayna originally in Arabic
11 Watt : conclusion that Arabia was going through a socio-economic
unrest. Mecca was now a commercial republic. The trade from Yemen had
produced a new Ethical system, it promoted materialism, accumulation of
wealth, et cetera. Bedouins accumulated debts with rich merchants.
12 Yathrib is the elder name of Medina. In Yathrib was a large Jewish
13 Christian city
14 Darag Hums- religious zeal
15 The wealthy widow was ‘Khadija’
16 head of the Umayya clan
17 one of the two dominating Arab tribes of Medina