The first six centuries of the Christian era witnessed a series of major developments in the course of events and in the movement of civilization. This was roughly the era between the advent of Christianity and of Islam. According to Lewis (1995), the three major developments were the rise of Christianity, the shift the center of the gravity of the Roman empire from west to east, and processes of Hellenization of the Middle East and vicinity. This section briefly discusses all these topics. In addition to this, this chapter also provides brief highlights on the social, economic and cultural situation of the Arabs before the emergence of Islam.
For Muslim readers, it would be worth inserting here a brief note on Christianity. Christianity is basically a monotheistic religion within the Abrahamic tradition which is based on the life and teachings of the Prophet Isa Ibn Maryam AS (according to Islam) or Jesus of Nazareth. Christians know Jesus as Christ or “Messiah” which is the center of Christianity, the Son of God and the savior of humanity who came as the Messiah (Christ) as prophesied in the Old Testament. Christianity plays an important role in the formation and dynamic of Western civilization as we understand by now.
During the first six centuries, Christian teaching spread slowly but steadily before it was finally accepted by the society in Roman empire. As a result, pre-Christian religions disappeared or were at least submerged, while Judaism and Persian religion were exceptions that were not much influenced by Christianity.
During the first three centuries and the beginning of the fourth century, Christianity grew and spread as a protest against the Roman order. It gradually developed its own institution (the Church) with its own structure and hierarchy. This growth and spread eventually embraced the whole Roman world.
Christianity captured the Roman Empire with the conversion of the emperor of Constantine (311-337) despite, “in a sense, captured by it” (Lewis 1995:33). After capturing the empire, the process of Christianization of the Roman state took place gradually and reached a decisive momentum in the era of Emperor Justinian (527-569). This emperor utilized fully and deeply its power to develop Roman-Christian civilization. Regarding this development Lewis (1995: 33) writes:
… by the time of the great Christian emperor Justinian (527-569), the full panoply of Roman power was used, not only to establish the supremacy of Christianity over other religions but also to enforce the supremacy one state-approved doctrine among the many schools of thought which is now divided.
A few centuries before Islam, the gravity of Roman power shifted from the West to the East. According to Lewis (1995), this development shaped the history of the second half of the first sixth century of the Christian era. This shift began around the end of the 4th century after the death of Emperor Theodosius (395). This event marked the beginning of the split the Roman empire into two: (1) the Western Empire ruled from Rome, and (2) the Eastern Empire which is known as Byzantium ruled from Constantinople. In a relatively short time, the Western empire ceased to exist due to a series of barbarian invasions. The Eastern Empire was free from this problem so that it could last for the next millennium.
Regarding the term Byzantine, the following two notes are worth inserting here: (1) The Byzantines never called themselves Byzantines but Romans (Roman) and ruled by the Roman Empire, and (2) even though they felt Christian and Roman, the Byzantines expressed it in Greek (rhomaioi), not in Latin (romani).
The shift of the power was accompanied by the intensity of the use of Greek as a government and cultural language. This use actually had taken place for in a long history before: Greek language, philosophical traditions, and traditions have long influenced other languages and cultures including Coptic, Aramaic, and later Arabic.
The Romans were a great empire that was almost always in war conflict with another equivalent empire that was Persia. This conflict began with a war between the Parthian Empire and the Roman Republic around 66 BC. The conflict continued almost without interruption and in the latter era, it occurred between the Sassanid Empire and the Roman Empire which involved nomadic countries and subordinate countries of each of the empires. The war ended due to the Arab-Muslim conquest resulting in the fall of the Sasanid Empire and significant territorial losses by Byzantium.
|Map 1: The late 5th century Roman and Persian Empires and their neighbors.
The overall war conflicts between Rome and the Persian Empire lasted around 680 years, the longest war conflict in human history. In this old conflict, neither party had sufficient logistical or energy power to maintain a long war campaign far from their borders. This long conflict resulted in vulnerability for both empires and “opened the way for Islam”:
Neither empire was given any chance to recover, as within a few years they were struck by the onslaught of the Arabs (newly united by Islam), which, according to Howard-Johnston, “can only be likened to a human tsunami”. According to George Liska, the “unnecessarily prolonged Byzantine–Persian conflict opened the way for Islam”.
Source: [2, aftermath]
According to historians, this long war was triggered by territorial problems. While the Romans claimed Armenia and Mesopotamia as their legitimate territories, Persia claimed Syria, Palestine, and Egypt as their domains. Roman claims to Armenia and Mesopotamia were based on the argument that King Trajan had conquered the two territories so that he had permanent power in accordance with the doctrine adopted by the Romans, Persians and later Muslims. On the other hand, the Persian claim to Syria, Palestine, and Egypt was due to Cambyses (Cyrus’s son) conquering these territories in 525 BC.
Modern historians later revealed that the conflict was not merely a territorial issue but also a matter of monitoring trade routes between the East and the West. There were two main commodities imported from the East: silk from China and spices from India and Southeast Asia. Because of this trade, the Roman and Byzantine worlds were in contact with the Chinese and Indian cultures.
The area of the Arabian Peninsula was relatively independent of the dominance of more advanced outside parties, although that does not mean that it was not entirely unaffected. In the context of the Roman-Persian conflict, the position of the Arabian Peninsula was rather unique. This region was outside the boundaries of the territories of these two empires and both were not interested in conquering it. One reason was the character of the population described by Ammianus Marcellinus (4th-century Roman historian), as quoted by Lewis (1995: 39), as follows:
Residents in all parts of the region are savage and warlike. They did enjoy war and conflict to a point that those who lose their lives in battle are considered the happiest. On the contrary, those who leave this life through natural death are considered despicable, low and cowardly.
Because of these characteristics, both empires considered their “neighbor” conquests as expensive, difficult, and dangerous; in other words, neither safe nor useful. What’s interesting to note, the Arab tribes in the desert, in the North and South, were smart enough to take advantage of the situation for their benefit. Sometimes they took side with the one, sometimes to others, sometimes siding with both, sometimes did not take any side at all.
Apart from their unique position, due to contact with outsiders, the Arabs learned a lot. They learn, for example, about the use of weapons of war, military tactics and the tastes of more advanced people. They began to learn something about religion, and culture from their more developed neighbors. Moreover, they even began to be dissatisfied with their religion as revealed in the following quotation (Lewis, 1995: 46):
They learned how to write, to write scripts, and to start using their own language. They even learned new ideas from the outside and perhaps most important of all, they started feeling unsatisfied with their religion, with primitive paganism that most of them had followed and tried to find something better.
The era before the arrival of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula was known as the Jahiliyyah era or the era of Ignorance. This ignorance was widespread and affected all aspects of life: political, economic, social and religious.
In early the 7th century, with the exception of the southwestern region of Yemen, there were no political organizations in any form in the entire Arabian Peninsula. In other words, there is no state or government that was recognized by Arab society. What they did admit was the moral authority (not political authority) of their tribal leaders.
Historians consider this condition extraordinary: How can a nation survive without a state, without any government (lawless), for a long time, from generation to generation, century after century? For this nation, the only law is lawlessness.
In the absence of the law it was common that, in case of a crime, the victim could determine their own way to demand justice for the perpetrator. This way encouraged the emergence of cruel norms in society. If there were parties doing a little restraint, it was done simply to prevent provocation from the other side.
Because there was no government, the tribe was the only protection from enemy threats. The tribe, in turn, protected its members even if the relevant perpetrator committed the crime: tribalism or (clan spirit (ashabiyah) took precedence over ethics. It worth inserting here that the dominant tribe in Mecca was the Quraysh while in Yathrib the dominant Arab tribes were Aus and Khazraj and the Jewish tribes Nadheer, Qaynuqaa, and Qurayza.
Also because there was no state, the Arabs were always trapped in war: for them, the war was a permanent institution and the idea of a lasting peace was not interesting.
For them, the war was a kind of hobby or rather a dangerous sport. In this “sport” they gained excitement from the clash of weapons and the opportunity to display their skills in playing arrow, sword and horse weapons. Their chief motivation for war was to achieve heroism for themselves which was at the same time to honor the tribe. In short, before Islam, a war was a permanent institution of Arab society.
Before Islam, the economic system of Arab society was based on the practice of slavery, usury, and monopolies:
- Slavery. Male and female slaves were traded like animals.
- Usury. Capital owners and moneylenders formed the strongest class in society. They implement high-interest rates designed to make them richer and poorer poor people.
- Monopoly. The Jews were Arab leaders in economic life. They were the best farmers, the best-cultivated landowners, industrial entrepreneurs, and enjoyed the weapons industry monopoly.
Before Islam, women did not have any status other than as sex objects. When a man died, his son inherited all his wives except his own mother. They had a terrible habit of burying their baby girls alive.
Relations between sexes were very loose. Some women offered sex to make a living because there was little they could do. They put the flag in front of their house as a marker of their profession. They were known as “ladies of the flags”.
Drunkenness was a common habit for the Arabs of this era. They used to gamble while drunk. They were known as compulsive drinkers and gamblers.
Before Islam, the majority of Arabs were idolaters (polytheists). Each tribe had their own idols to worship. They changed the Ka’bah in Mecca into a pantheon of polytheistic practices.
Around the Kaaba, there were about 360 idols. In addition to this, there were small and large idols in almost every house to serve as a guard. The Arabs before Islam would face idols and prostrate before them, especially if they were going to travel far, to ask for blessing and safety. Likewise, they did the first time when they returned (Lings, 1991: 35).
The minority of Arabs before Islam were atheists, zindik, shabiin, Jews, Christians, and Hanifs.
1) Atheists. This group consists of materialists who believe that the world is eternal.
2) Zindik. The religion of this group was influenced by the Persian doctrine of dualism in nature. They believe that there are two gods representing the twin powers of good and evil or light and darkness.
3) Shabiin. Worshipers of the stars.
4) Jews. When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD they drove the Jews out of Palestine and Syria. Many of them found new homes in the Hijaz in Arabia. Under their influence, many Arabs also converted to the Jewish religion. Their strong centers were the cities of Yathrib, Khayber, Fadak, and Umm-ul-Qura.
5) Christianity. The Romans had converted the Ghassan tribe of North Arabia to Christianity. Several Ghassan clans had migrated to and settled in the Hijaz (including Mecca and Medina). In the south, there were many Christians in Yemen whose convictions were originally brought by Ethiopian invaders. Their strong center was the city of Najran.
6) Monotheist. There was a small group of monotheists present in Arabia on the eve of the rise of Islam. They were followers of the Prophet Ibrahim AS who did not worship idols. The family members of the Prophet SAW, Ali RA and most of the members of the Bani Hasyim (the great-grandmother of the Prophet SAW) were included in this group.
The last religion (Monotheist) was known as the Hanif religion. Regarding Religion Hanif the sacred text of the Quran relates it to the tradition of the Prophet Ibrahim. In addition, the term Hanif is used by Al-Quran as an argument for Islamic monotheism when dealing with Jews and Christians. The following holy text illustrates the issue:
And they say, “Be ye (adherents) of Jews or Christians, surely you will get instructions”, Say “(No!) But (we follow) the religion of Abraham which is Hanif (straight) and does not include those who fight God” (QS 2: 135).
How did the above religions affect the Arabs before Islam? To answer this question adequately requires a careful and long discussion which is not the purpose of this book. However, the following conclusion by Hitti (1961: 107-108) would be worth inserting here:
In summing up it may be safely stated that al-Hijaz in the century proceeding the mission of Muhammad was ringed about with influences, intellectual, religious and material, radiating from Byzantine, Syrian (Armenian), Persian and Abyssinian centers and conducted mainly through Ghassanid, Lakhmid and Yamanite channels; but it cannot be asserted that al-Hijaz was in such vital contact with the higher civilization of the north to transform its native cultural aspect.
With regards to Christianity, Judaism, and Hanif, Hitti (ibid) writes:
… although Christianity did find a footing in Najran, and Judaism in al-Yaman and al-Hijaz, neither seems to have left much of an impression on the North Arabian mind. Nevertheless, the antiquated paganism of the peninsula seems to have reached the point where it failed any longer to meet the spiritual demands of the people and was outgrown by a dissatisfied group who developed vague monotheistic ideas and went by the name of Hanifs.
That is all a brief description of the historical context of the rise of Islam. In overall, the context had created a conducive situation for Islam to emerge as a new religion.