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Pre-Islamic Arabia

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Atlas of the World’s Religions, Second Edition What is This? Depicts the historical development and present state of the world's major religions

    Pre-Islamic Arabia

    THE HISTORY OF the Arabian peninsula immediately prior to the rise of Islam (which is referred to by Islamic sources as Jahilyah, or ‘age of ignorance’) is known only in broad terms, through literary and archaeological sources. By the seventh century CE two ‘superpowers’ dominated the area: the Christian Byzantine empire, with Constantinople as its capital, and the Zoroastrian Sasanian empire with Ctesiphon as its main centre. These empires had been locked in conflict with one another since the middle of the sixth century, alternately seizing and losing control of important centres such as Antioch, Jerusalem and even of their respective capital cities. They used their influence to limit the power of other states by supporting different religious traditions. The Sasanian empire, for example, backed first Judaism and later Nestorian Christianity in the Yemen, while the Byzantine rulers made an alliance with the Monophysite Christians of Abyssinia. The Yemen, strategically located along the east-west trade routes, was no longer a major exporter of frankincense and was affected by the decline of the Himyari kingdom in the southwest of Arabia, whose capital, Zafar, together with its Jewish king, fell to the Abyssinians in 525 CE .

    Within the Arabian peninsula the major powers exercised further influence by creating two tributary buffer-states: one was formed by the Monophysite Ghassanid tribes, backed by the Byzantines, while the Sasanians backed the state of the Nestorian Lakhmids, with its capital at Hira.

    Pre-Islamic Arabia

    1. Pre-Islamic Arabia and its Neighbours

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    Society and Economy in the Arabian Peninsula

    The peninsula covers a wide, scarcely populated area, one-third of the size of the USA. There are no large rivers or permanent lakes, the centre is dominated by sandy desert, mountains fringe the Red Sea, and only the south is fertile. Cultivation was therefore limited to the Yemen and to some oases. Nevertheless, there were exchanges between the nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes of the north and the more sedentary tribes of the south, as well as an interdependence between pastoral and agricultural economies. The common feature of all the areas of the peninsula was the structure of its societies: large tribes, smaller clans and extended families, with evidence of both matrilineal and patrilineal descent.

    Along with pastoralism and agriculture, trade provided the other main revenue of the area. It is likely that cities strategically situated along the trade route from Aden to the Mediterranean and the Fertile Crescent enjoyed a thriving economy. Mecca, in particular, has been singled out as deriving much of its wealth from international trade by Islamic histories, which naturally tend to re-interpret the importance of the area in the context of religious considerations. However, new revelations about changes in international and local markets have called this prominence into question.

    Religion in the Arabian Peninsula

    Religion was linked to the social structure of the peninsula. Archaeological discoveries in the Yemen confirm the existence in the south of a polytheistic, temple-based religion, with priests performing animal sacrifices (especially of camels and sheep), and with offerings of incense and perfumes. A variety of gods and goddesses were revered as protectors by individual tribes, while many minor deities and spirits (jinn) were linked to clans and individual families. Some of the main gods and goddesses worshipped in the south resembled those of other Near Eastern religions, especially astral deities such as Athtar. Gods and goddesses such as Suwa‘, Ya‘uq and the couple Isaf-Na'ila, worshipped in the Hejaz, were in fact of South Arabian origin. This is hardly surprising given the mobility of southern tribes, some of which had become an integral part of the northwestern Hejazi society.

    In the Hejaz, religion was also polytheistic and tribal. The Qur'an, in its condemnation of polytheistic practices, mentions several deities (derogatively called asnam, ‘idols’) which were worshipped by individual tribes in the area. ‘Uzza, for example, was the goddess of the powerful Quraysh tribe (which had controlled Mecca since the fifth century) and, along with two other goddesses, Manat and Allat, she is referred to in the Qur'an (53.19-22) in what later Muslim commentators call the ‘Satanic verses’.

    These tribal deities were represented in the form of stones (Allat), trees (‘Uzza) and also by sculptures (Hubal). Some of them were associated with a sacred place, even though the number of permanent, stone-built sanctuaries appears to have been limited. The sanctuary in Mecca was a main place of pilgrimage; it contained a sacred meteorite, the ‘Black Stone’, and was reported to ‘house’ more than 300 deities.

    Pre-Islamic Arabia

    2. Pre-Islamic Mecca and its Environs

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    The Foundations of Islam

    By the seventh century, three major developments formed the background to the revelations of Islam. Politically, the Near East was becoming more and more unsettled while, within the peninsula itself, local Arab tribes were increasingly being manipulated by foreign powers. Culturally, the development of a common poetic language began to unify tribes which were otherwise politically disjointed. Finally, a significant religious transition had been developing since the fourth or fifth century; forms of henotheism or even monotheism were starting to appear in the south as well as in the Hejaz, where the warrior god Hubal was worshipped in Mecca on an inter-tribal level. This shift may have been the outcome of an independent development of local beliefs, or it might be related to the proximity of other monotheistic religions – the presence of Judaism in the Yemen and in other areas such as Yathrib and, to a lesser extent, Christianity in the northern states and isolated pockets such as Najran.

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