Arabia Before Islam
The Cradle of Human Civilization
The problem of the origin and development of human civilization continues to baffle the student in modern times. Scholars have long thought that Egypt was the cradle of civilization six thousand years ago and that the earlier ages consisted of a proto-history of which no scientific knowledge was possible. Today, however, archeologists have been at work in `Iraq and Syria in the hope of discovering clues regarding the origins of the Mesopotamian and Phoenician civilizations, of establishing whether they are anterior or posterior to Egyptian civilization, and of determining the influence of one upon the other. Whatever the results of archeological research on this period of history, one fact has never been challenged by any archeological find in China or the Far East: that is the fact that the cradle of the earliest human civilization, whether in Egypt, Phoenicia, or Mesopotamia, was connected with the Mediterranean Sea. It is equally indubitable that Egypt was the first to export its civilization to Greece and Rome, and that modern civilization is very closely related to that antiquity. Whatever archeological study of the Far East may reveal concerning the civilizations of that region, it can hardly establish that any determining relationship existed between those civilizations and Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece. It is no more questioned whether these ancient civilizations of the Near East were influenced by the civilization of Islam. Indeed, the latter was the only civilization which has altered its course as soon as it came into contact with them. The world civilization of the present which is dominating the four corners of the globe is a result of the influences of the civilizations of the ancient Near East and that of Islam upon one another.
The Mediterranean and Red Sea Basins
The civilizations which sprang up several thousand years ago on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea or in proximity thereto-in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece-reached heights of achievement which elicit our wonder and admiration today, whether in the fields of science, industry, agriculture, trade, war, or any other human activity. The mainspring of all these civilizations which gave them their strength is religion. True, the figurations of this mainspring changed from the trinitarianism of ancient Egypt expressed in the myth of Osiris, Isis and Horus, and representing the continuity of life in death and resurrection and permanence through generation, to the paganism of Hellas expressed in the sensory representation of truth, goodness, and beauty. It changed, likewise, in the succeeding periods of decay and dissolution to levels where the sensory representations of Hellas became gross. Regardless of these variants, religion has remained the source which has fashioned the destiny of the world; and it plays the same role in our age. Present civilization has sometimes opposed religion, or sought to get rid of and discard it; and yet from time to time, it has inclined towards religion. On the other hand, religion has continued to court our civilization and, perhaps, one-day, may even assimilate it.
In this environment where civilization has rested for thousands of years on a religious base, three well-known world religions arose. Egypt saw the appearance of Moses. He was brought up and disciplined in Pharaoh's house, instructed in the unity of divine being and taught the secrets of the universe by Pharaoh's priesthood. When God permitted Moses to proclaim His religion to the people, Pharaoh was proclaiming to them: "I am your Lord supreme" (Qur'an, 79:24). Moses contended with Pharaoh and his priesthood until he finally had to emigrate with the children of Israel to Palestine. In Palestine there appeared Jesus, the spirit and word of God given unto Mary. When God raised Jesus unto Himself [As in the Qur'anic verse: "As to their saying, 'We did kill the Messiah, Jesus, Son of Mary, the Apostle of God;' whereas they slew him not, nor crucified him, but it was made to appear to them as if they did. Those who differ therein are certainly in a state of doubt about it. They have no definite knowledge thereof but only follow a conjecture. None of them knows for sure that he was killed. Rather, God raised him unto Himself. God is Mighty and Wise." 4:156-7. -Tr.], his disciples preached his religion and met in the process the strongest prejudice and opposition. When God permitted Christianity to spread, the Emperor of Rome [The term "al Rum" used in pre-Islamic (Qur'an, 30:2) times, as well as later, refers to Rome, the Roman Empire and the East Roman Empire or Byzantium. Arab historians say "Roman" when they mean "Byzantine." -Tr.], then sovereign of the world converted to the new faith and adopted its cause. The Roman Empire followed, and the religion of Jesus spread through Egypt, Syria, and Greece. From Egypt it spread to Abyssinia, and for centuries it continued to grow. Whoever sought Roman protection or friendship joined the ranks of the new faith.
Christianity and Zoroastrianism
Facing this Christian religion which spread by Roman influence and power, stood the religion of Persia supported by the moral power of India and the Far East. The civilization of Egypt, extending to Phoenicia and that of Mesopotamia had for many ages separated the East from the West and prevented any grave confrontation of their ideologies and civilizations. The entry of Egypt and Phoenicia into Christianity dissolved this barrier and brought the Christianity of the West and the Zoroastrianism of the East face to face. For centuries east and West confronted each other without intermingling between their religions. Each felt such fear of the other party's religion that a moral barrier came to replace the old barrier provided by the ancient Near Eastern civilizations. Each was thus compelled to direct its religious expansion to its own hinterland, away from the other's territory. Despite the numerous wars they fought, each exhausted its power without being able to confront the other on the religious or civilizational level. Although Persia conquered and ruled Syria and Egypt and the approaches of Byzantium, its kings never thought of spreading their religion or of converting the Christians. On the contrary, the conquerors respected the religions of the conquered and assisted them in reconstructing the temples which war had ravished. They granted them the liberty of upholding their religious rituals. The farthest the Persians had gone in infringing on their subjects' religion was to seize the "Holy Cross" and to keep it in Persia. When the tables were turned and the Byzantines won, they took the cross back. Thus the spiritual conquests of the West were restricted to the West, and those of the East were restricted to the East. The moral barrier separated them as decisively as the geographic civilizational one had done. Spiritually speaking, the two paths were equivalent and their equivalence prevented any clash between them.
Byzantium, the Heir of Rome
This situation remained without significant change until the sixth century of the Christian era. In the meantime, competition between the East and West Roman empires was intensified. Rome, which had ruled the West as far as Gaul and England for many generations, and which looked proudly back to the age of Julius Caesar, began to lose its glory gradually. The glory of Byzantium was increasing and, after the dissolution of Roman power following the raids of the Vandals and their conquest of Rome itself [476 C.E.], it became in fact the only heir of the wide Roman World. Naturally, these events were not without influence on Christianity, which arose in the lap of Rome where the believers in Jesus had suffered tyranny.
Christianity began to divide into various sects, and every sect began in turn to divide into factions, each of which held a different opinion concerning the religion and its principles and bases. In the absence of commonly held principles, in terms of which these differences could be composed, the various sects became antagonistic toward one another. Their moral and mental backwardness transformed the opposing doctrines into personal antagonisms protected by blind prejudice and deadening conservatism. Some of them denied that Jesus ever had a body other than a ghostly shadow by which he appeared to men. Others regarded the person and soul of Jesus as related to each other with such extraordinary ties that only the most fastidious imagination could grasp what they meant. While some worshiped Mary, others denied that she remained a virgin after the birth of Christ. Thus the controversies dividing the followers of Jesus were typical of the dissolution and decadence affecting any nation or age; that is to say, they were merely verbal disputes arising from the assignment to words of secret and esoteric meanings removed from their commonsense connotations, oppugnant to reason and tolerated only by futile sophistry.
One of the monks of the Church wrote describing the situation of his day: "The city and all its precincts were full of controversy-in the market place, in the shops of apparel, at the changers, in the grocery stores. You ask for a piece of gold to be changed at the changers and you find yourself questioned about that which in the person of Jesus was created and that which was not created. You stop at the bakery to buy a loaf of bread and ask concerning the price, only to find the baker answer: ‘Will you agree that the Father is greater than the Son and the Son is subordinate to the Father?’ You ask your servant about your bath, whether or not the water is warm, and your servant answers you: ‘The Son was created from nothing.’"
The decay which befell Christianity and caused it to split into factions and sects did not shake the political foundations of the Imperium Romanum. The Empire remained strong and closely knit while the sects disputed their differences with one another and with the councils, which were called from time to time to resolve them. For some time at least no sect had enough power to coerce the others into agreement. The Empire protected them all and granted them the freedom to argue their doctrines with one another, a measure which increased the civil power of the Emperor without reducing his religious prestige. Each faction sought his sympathy and encouragement; indeed, each claimed that the emperor was its patron and advocate. It was the cohesion of the Empire which enabled Christianity to spread to the farthest reaches of imperial authority. From its base in Roman Egypt, Christianity thus reached to independent Abyssinia and thence to the Red Sea which it then invested with the same importance as the Mediterranean. The same imperial cohesion also enabled Christianity to move from Syria and Palestine once it had converted their people to the adjoining Arab tribe of Ghassan and the shores of the Euphrates. There it converted the Arabs of Hirah, the Banu Lakhm, and Banu Mundhir who had migrated thence from the desert but whose history has been divided between independence and Persian tutelage.
The Decay of Zoroastrianism
In Persia, Zoroastrianism was attacked by the same kind of decay. Although fire worship continued to give the various factions a semblance of unity, the religion and its followers divided into sects which contended with one another. Apparently unaffected by the religious controversy around the divine personifications and the meanings behind them, the political structure of the land remained strong. All sects sought the protection of the Persian emperor, and the latter readily gave it to them if only to increase his own power and to use them one against the other wherever a political gain for him was to be made or a political threat from any one section was to be avoided. The two powers, Christianity and Zoroastrianism, the West and the East, each allied with a number of smaller states which it held under its influence, surrounded the Arabian Peninsula at the beginning of the sixth century C.E. Each entertained its own ideas of colonialism and expansion. In each camp, the men of religion exerted great efforts to spread the faith anti doctrine in which they believed. This proselytizing notwithstanding, the Arabian Peninsula remained secure against conquest except at the fringes. Like a strong fortress it was secure against the spread of any religious call, whether Christian or Zoroastrian. Only very few of its tribes had answered the call, and they did so in insignificant numbers-a surprising phenomenon in history. To understand it we must grasp the situation and nature of Arabia and the influence that nature had exerted upon the lives, morals and thought of its people.
The Geographic Position of the Peninsula
The Arabian Peninsula has the shape of an irregular rectangle. On the north it is bounded by Palestine and the Syrian desert; on the east by the kingdom of al Hirah, the Euphrates and Tigris and the Persian Gulf; on the south by the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of `Adan; and to the west by the Red Sea. The natural isolation of the Peninsula combined with its size to protect it against invasion. The Peninsula is over a thousand kilometers long and as wide. Moreover, this vast expanse is utterly uncultivable. It does not have a single river nor a dependable rainy season around which any agriculture could be organized. With the exception of fertile and rainy Yaman in the southwest, the Peninsula consists of plateaus, valleys and deserts devoid of vegetation and an atmosphere so inclement that no civilization could prosper therein. The Arabian Peninsula allows only desert life; and desert life demands continuous movement, adoption of the camel as means of transportation, and the pursuit of thin pasture which is no sooner discovered than it is exhausted and another movement becomes imperative. These well sought-after pastures grow around springs whose waters have collected from rainfall on the surrounding rocky terrain, allowing a scarce vegetation to grow in the immediate vicinity.
Except Yaman the Arabian Peninsula Is Unknown
In a country such as this, or such as the Sahara of Africa, it is natural that no people would seek to dwell and that it have a scarce population. It is equally natural that whoever settles in such a desert has done so for the sake of the refuge the desert provides and that he entertains no purpose beyond survival. The inhabitants of the oasis, on the other hand, may envision a different purpose. But the oases themselves remain unknown to any but the most daring adventurer prepared to venture into the desert at the risk of his own life. Except for Yaman, the Arabian Peninsula was literally unknown to the ancient world.
The geographic position of the Peninsula saved it from de-population. In those ancient times, men had not yet mastered navigation and had not yet learned to cross the sea with the confidence requisite for travel or commerce. The Arabic proverbs which have come down to us betray the fact that men feared the sea as they feared death. Trade and commerce had to find another road less dangerous than the sea. The most important trade route was that which extended from the Roman Empire and other territories in the west to India and other territories in the east. The Arabian Peninsula stood astride the two roads connecting east and West, whether by way of Egypt or by way of the Persian Gulf. Its inhabitants and masters, namely the Bedouins, naturally became the princes of the desert routes just as the maritime people became princes of the sea-lanes when sea communications replaced land communications. It was equally natural that the princes of the desert would plan the roads of caravan so as to guarantee the maximum degree of safety, just as the sea navigators were to plan the course of ships away from tempests, and other sea dangers. "The course of the caravan," says Heeren, "was not a matter of free choice, but of established custom. In the vast steppes of sandy desert which the caravans had to cross, nature had sparingly allotted to the traveler a few scattered places of rest where, under the shade of palm trees and beside cool fountains, the merchant and his beast of burden might refresh themselves. Such places of repose became entrepots of commerce and, not infrequently, sites of temples and sanctuaries under the protection of which the merchant pursued his trade and to which the pilgrim resorted."[Heeren's Researches: Africa, Vol. I, p. 23, quoted by Muir, op. cit., pp. ii-iii.]
The Two Caravan Routes
The Arabian Peninsula was crisscrossed with caravan routes. Of these, two were important. The first ran alongside the Persian Gulf, then alongside the Tigris [Perhaps the author meant the Euphrates, for it is hard to see why a west-bound caravan should travel alongside the Tigris. -Tr.] and then crossed the Syrian Desert towards Palestine. It was properly called "the eastern route." The other route ran along the shore of the Red Sea and was properly called "the western route." On these two main routes, world trade ran between east and West carrying products and goods in both directions. These two routes provided the desert with income and prosperity. The peoples of the West, however, lived in total ignorance of the routes which their own trade took. None of them, or of their eastern neighbors, ever penetrated the desert territory unless it be the case of an adventurer who had no concern for his own life. A number of adventurers perished in trying the desert labyrinth in vain. The hardships which such travel entailed were unbearable except to those who had been accustomed to desert life from a tender age. A man accustomed to the luxuries of town living cannot be expected to bear the discomfort of these barren mountains separated from the Red Sea only by the narrow passages of Tihamah [The narrow plain alongside the East coast of the Red Sea, separating the latter from the Hijaz mountain chain and the desert beyond. -Tr.], and leading through naked rocks to the apparently infinite expanse of most arid and desolate desert. A man accustomed to a political order guaranteeing the security of all inhabitants at all times cannot be expected to bear the terror and lawlessness of the desert, devoid as it is of political order, and whose inhabitants live as utterly independent tribes, clans nay individuals except where their relations to one another come under the jurisdiction of tribal law, or some ad hoc convention of a strong protector. The desert had never known any urban order such as we enjoy in our modern cities. Its people lived in the shadow of retributive justice. They repelled attack by attack, and they sought to prevent aggression by the fear of counter-aggressions. The weak had no chance unless somebody took them under protection. Such a life does not encourage anyone to try it, nor does it invite anyone to learn of it in any detail. That is why the Arabian Peninsula remained an unknown continent throughout the world until the circumstances of history permitted its people, after the advent of Muhammad, may God's peace and blessing be upon him, to migrate and thus tell about their country and give the world the information it lacked.
The Civilization of Yaman
The only exception to this universal ignorance of the Arabian Peninsula concerns Yaman and the coastline of the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. This exception is not due merely to their near location to the sea and ocean but to their radical difference from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. Rather than being a barren desert profitless to befriend, explore, or colonize, these lands were fertile and had well-defined seasons with a fair amount of rainfall. They had an established civilization with many urban centers and long-lasting temples. Its people, the Banu Himyar, were well endowed and intelligent. They were clever enough to think of ways of saving rain water from running down to the sea and of making good use of it. They built the dam of Ma'rib and thereby changed the course which water would have naturally followed to courses such as settled life and intensive agriculture required. Falling on high mountains, rain water would gather in a 400 meters wide valley flanked by two mountains east of the city of Ma'rib. It would then divide into many streams and spread over a wide plain that is very much like the Nile in the dam area in Upper Egypt. As their technological and administrative skill developed, the people of Yaman constructed a dam at the narrowest point between the two mountains with gates which allowed controlled distribution of water. By putting the resources of their country to good use, they increased the fertility of the land and the prosperity of the people. What has so far been discovered-and is still being discovered-by way of remains of this Himyari civilization in Yaman, proves that it had reached an impressive height and was strong enough to withstand not only a number of great political storms but even war.
Judaism and Christianity in Yaman
This civilization founded upon agricultural prosperity and settled life, brought upon Yaman great misfortune, unlike the desert whose barrenness was for it a sort of protector. Sovereigns in their own land, Banu Himyar ruled Yaman generation after generation. One of their kings, Dhu Nuwas, disliked the paganism of his people and inclined toward the Mosaic religion. In time, he was converted to this faith by the Jews who had migrated to Yaman. Historians agree that it was to this Himyari king that the Qur'an referred in the "story of the trench," reported in the following verses
"Cursed be the fellows of the trench who fed the fire with fury, sat by it and witnessed the burning of the believers whom they threw therein. They executed the believers only because the latter believed in God, the Almighty, the Praiseworthy." [Qur'an, 85:5-9]
The story is that of a pious Christian, Qaymiyun by name, who emigrated from Byzantium, settled in Najran, and converted the people of that city by his piety, virtue, and good example. When the news of the increasing converts and widening influence of Christianity reached Dhu Nuwas, he went to Najran and solemnly warned its people that they must either convert to Judaism or be killed. Upon their refusal to apostasize, the king dug a wide trench, set it on fire, and threw them in. Whoever escaped from the fire was killed by the sword. According to the biographies, twenty thousand of them perished in this manner. Some nonetheless escaped, sought the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and asked for his help against Dhu Nuwas. Byzantium was too far from Yaman to send any effective assistance. Its emperor therefore wrote to the Negus of Abyssinia to avenge the Christians of Yaman. At the time-the sixth century C.E.-Abyssinia was at the height of its power, commanding a wide sea trade protected by a strong maritime fleet and imposing its influence upon the neighboring countries [This fact is confirmed by most historians in a number of works of history and reference. It is confirmed by the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Historian's History of the World. In his book, The Life of Muhammad, Dermenghem accepts it as true. Al Tabari reports from Hisham ibn Muhammad that when the Yamani Christians solicited the Negus's assistance against Dhu Nuwas, informed him of what the Jewish King did to the Christians and showed him a partially burnt Evangel, the Negus said: "My men are many but I have no ships. I shall write to the Byzantine Emperor to send me ships with which to carry the men over to Yaman." The Negus wrote to the Byzantine Emperor and sent him the partially burned Evangel. The Emperor responded by sending many ships. Al Tabari adds: "Hisham ibn Muhammad claims that when the ships arrived, the Negus sent his army therein and landed them on the shores of Mandib" (A1 Tabari, ibn Jarir, Tarikh al Rusul wa al Muluk, Cairo: A1 Matba'ah al Husayniyyah, Vol, II, pp. 106, 108).]. The Abyssinian kingdom was the ally of the Byzantine Empire and the protagonist of Christianity on the Red Sea just as the Byzantine Empire was its protagonist on the Mediterranean. When the Negus received the message of the Byzantine emperor, he sent with the Yamani, who carried the emperor's message to him, an Abyssinian army under the command of Aryat? One of the officers of this expeditionary force was Abraha al Ashram [Literally, "the man with the cut lip."]. Aryat conquered Yaman and ruled it in the name of the Negus of Abyssinia. Later on he was killed and succeeded by Abraha, "the general with the elephant," who sought to conquer Makkah and destroy the Ka'bah but failed, as we shall see in the next chapter. [Some historians give a different explanation of the conquest of Yaman by Abyssinia. They claim that trade moved along connected links between Abyssinia, Yaman, and Hijaz; that Abyssinia then had a large commercial fleet operating on the shores of the Red Sea. The Byzantines were anxious to conquer Yaman in order to reap some of its produce and wealth. Anxious to conquer Yaman for Byzantium, Aelius Gallus, Governor of Egypt, equipped and prepared the army on the shore of the Red Sea, sent it to Yaman, and occupied Najran. The Yamanis put up a stiff resistance and were helped by the epidemic which ravaged the expeditionary force and compelled a withdrawal to Egypt. A number of other attempts to conquer Yaman were made by the Byzantines, but none of them succeeded. It was this long history of conflict which opened the eyes of the Negus and prompted him to avenge his fellow Christians against the Yamani Jews; it also explains why he prepared the army of Aryat, sent it to conquer Yaman (525 c.E.). -Tr. The Abyssinians ruled the country until the Persians forced them out of the Peninsula.]
The successors of Abraha ruled Yaman tyrannically. Seeking relief from the yoke the Himyari Sayf ibn Dhu Yazan approached the Byzantine emperor complaining against the Abyssinians and pleading for a Byzantine governor to be sent to establish justice. He was turned down because of the alliance between Byzantium and Abyssinia. Disappointed, he stopped on his way back at the court of Nu'man ibn al Mundhir, Viceroy of Chosroes for al Hirah and surrounding lands of `Iraq.
Conquest and Rule of Yaman by Persia
When al Nu'man entered the audience hall of Chosroes, he was accompanied by Sayf ibn Dhu Yazan. Chosroes received them at his winter residence, sitting on the throne of Darius in the great iwan decorated with the pictures of the Zodiac. The throne was surrounded with a curtain made of the most precious furs which served as background for golden and silver chandeliers filled with warm water and for his golden and silver crown filled with rubies, beryls and pearls which, being too heavy to rest on his head, was attached to the ceiling by a golden chain. His clothes were of a golden weave, and he decorated himself with gold. So brilliant was this spectacle that any person was seized with awe at the mere sight of it. Surely, such was the case of Sayf ibn Dhu Yazan. When he came back to himself and felt reassured, he was asked by Chosroes about his mission and told the emperor the story of Abyssinia's conquest and tyrannous rule. Chosroes hesitated at the beginning, but then decided to send to Yaman an army under the command of Wahriz, one of the noblest and bravest commanders of Persia. The Persian army arrived in Yaman, vanquished the Abyssinians and expelled them after a rule of seventy-two years. Yaman remained under Persian rule until the advent of Islam and the succeeding entry of all Arab countries into the religion of God as well as into the Islamic Empire.
Cyrus's Rule of Persia
The Persians who ruled Yaman did not come directly under the authority of the Persian Emperor, particularly after Cyrus had killed his father Chosroes and succeeded to his throne. The new emperor seemed to think that the whole world ran according to his wishes and that the kingdoms of the world existed only to fill his treasury and to increase his affluence and luxury. Because he was a young man, he neglected most of the affairs of state in order to devote himself to his pleasures and pastimes. The pageantry of his hunting trips was greater than any imagination could possibly conceive. He used to go out surrounded by a whole troop of youthful princes clad in red, yellow, and violet; carriers of falcons and servants held back their muzzled panthers, perfume carrying slaves, fly fighters and musicians. In order to give himself a feeling of spring in the midst of winter, he used to sit surrounded by the members of his house on an immense carpet on which were drawn the roads and highways of the kingdom, the orchards, and gardens full of flowers, the forests and greenwoods and the silvery rivers all in a state of blossoming spring. Despite Cyrus's extravagance and addiction to pleasure, Persia maintained its glory and strong resistance to Byzantium and prevented the spread of Christianity further east. It was clear, however, that the accession of Cyrus to the throne was the beginning of the decline of this empire and a preparation for its conquest by the Muslims and the spread of Islam therein.
Destruction of the Dam of Ma'rib
The conflict of which Yaman had been the theatre ever since the fourth century C.E. influenced the distribution of population in the Arabian Peninsula. It is told that the dam of Ma'rib, by means of which the Himyaris changed the course of nature to benefit their country, was destroyed by the great flood, "Sayl al Arim," with the result that large sections of the inhabitants had to migrate. Apparently the continuing political conflicts so distracted men and governments from attending to the repair and maintenance of the dam that when the flood came it was incapable of holding the water. It is also told that the shift in population was due to the fact that the Byzantine emperor, realizing the threat to his trade by the conflict with Persia over Yaman, built a fleet of ships to ply the Red Sea and thereby avoid the caravan routes of Arabia. Historians agree on the historicity of the immigration of the Azd tribes from Yaman to the north but disagree in explaining it. Some attribute it to the loss of trade, and others to the destruction of the dam of Ma'rib and the resultant loss in food production. Whatever the explanation, the historicity of the event is beyond doubt. It was at the root of the blood relation of the Yamanis with the northern Arabs and their involvement in the history of the north. Even today the problem is still far from solved.
The Social Order of the Peninsula
As we have just seen, the political order of Yaman was disturbed because of the geographic circumstances of that country and the political wars of conquest of which it had been the object. Per contra, the Arabian Peninsula was free from any such disturbances. Indeed, the political system known in Yaman, as well as any other political system-whatever the term may mean or may have meant to the civilized peoples of old-was literally unknown in the areas of Tihamah, Hijaz, Najd, and other wide spaces constituting the Arabian Peninsula. The sons of the desert were then, as most of them are today, nomads who had no taste for settled life and who knew no kind of permanence other than perpetual movement in search of pasture and satisfaction of the wish of the moment. In the desert, the basic unit of life is not the state but the tribe. Moreover, a tribe which is always on the move does not know of any universal law nor does it ever subject itself to any general political order. To the nomad, nothing is acceptable that falls short of total freedom for the individual, for the family, and for the tribe as a whole. Settled land farmers, on the other hand, agree to give up part of their freedom, whether to the group as a whole or to an absolute ruler, in exchange for peace, security, and the prosperity which order brings. But the desert man who disdains the prosperity and security of settled life and derides the comforts of urban living cannot give any of his freedom for such "gains." Neither does he accept anything short of absolute equality with all the members of his tribe as well as between his tribe and other tribes. Naturally, he is moved like all other men by the will to survive and to defend himself, but such will must accord with the principles of honor and integrity demanded by the free life of the desert. Therefore, the desert people have never suffered with patience any injustice inflicted upon them but resisted it with all their strength. If they cannot throw off the injustice imposed upon them, they give up the pasture and move out into the wide expanse of the desert. Nothing is easier for them than recourse to the sword whenever a conflict seems insoluble under the conventional desert rules of honor, nobility, and integrity. It was these very conditions of desert living which led to the cultivation and growth of the virtues of hospitality, bravery, mutual assistance, neighbor protection, and magnanimity. It is not by accident that these virtues are stronger and more popular in the desert and weaker and more scarce in the cities. For the above-mentioned economic reasons neither Byzantium nor Persia entertained any ideas of conquering the Arabian Peninsula with the exception of Yaman. For they know that the people of the Peninsula would prefer emigration to the life of subjection and that they would never yield to any established authority or order.
These nomadic characteristics influenced in large measure the few small towns which grew up in the Peninsula along the caravan routes. To these centers the traders used to come in order to rest. In them they found temples wherein to give thanks to the gods for bringing them safely through their travels and for safeguarding their goods while in transit. Such were Makkah, Ta'if, Yathrib, and others scattered between the mountains of the west coastland and the desert sands. In their order and organization these towns followed the pattern and laws of the desert. Indeed, their being closer to the desert than they were to civilized life was reflected in the system of their tribes and clans, in their morals and customs, and in their strong resistance to any imposition upon their freedom, despite the fact that settled life had somewhat restricted their movements in comparison with their desert cousins. We shall witness more of this in the coming chapters when we talk about Makkah and Yathrib.
Arab Paganism and Its Causes
This state of nature and the moral, political, and social order it implied were equally consequential for religion. Was Yaman influenced by Byzantine Christianity or Persian Zoroastrianism, and did it influence in turn the Arabian Peninsula? It would seem so, especially in the case of Christianity. The missionaries of Christianity were as active in those days as they are today. Moreover, unlike the life of the city, desert life is especially conducive to the rise of religious consciousness. In the desert, man is in constant touch with the universe as a whole. He senses the infinity of existence in all its forms and is thereby prompted to order his relationship with the infinite. The city man, on the other hand, is distracted from the consciousness of infinity by his constant occupation. He is protected from the angst and dread such consciousness of the infinite brings by the group to which he gave up part of his freedom. His submission to political authority and the consequent security arising from this submission prevent him from establishing a direct contact, beyond the civil power, with the spiritual powers of the world, and weaken his speculative thinking about them. In the case of the desert man, on the other hand, nothing impedes his speculation over religious meanings and problems to which the life of the desert naturally leads.
And now we may ask, did Christianity, with all its missionary activity, benefit from these circumstances to spread and propagate itself? Perhaps it would have done so had it not been that other factors went into play and enabled the Peninsula as a whole to preserve its paganism, the religion of its ancestors. Only a very few tribes therefore responded favorably to the Christian call.
Christianity and Judaism
The greatest civilization of the day stood in the basins of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. The religions of Christianity and Judaism divided this civilization, and though they were not at war with each other, they were surely not friendly to each other. The Jews then remembered, as they still do, the rebellion Jesus had launched against their religion. As much as they could, therefore, they worked secretly to stop the flow of Christianity, the religion which forced them out of the Promised Land and assumed the Roman color as its own throughout the Empire. There were large communities of Jews living in Arabia, and a good number of them had settled in Yaman and in Yathrib. Zoroastrianism, on the other hand, was anxious to prevent Christianity from crossing the Euphrates. Hence, it lent its moral support to paganism while overlooking, or being mindful of, it’s spiritual and moral degradation. The fall of Rome and the passing of its power under all forms of dissolution encouraged the multiplication of sects in Christianity. These were not only becoming numerous and varied but were also fighting desperately with one another. Indeed, the Christian sects fell from the high level of faith to that of controversy regarding forms, figures, and words which related to the holiness of Mary and her priority to her son, the Christ. The sectarian controversies of Christianity betray the level of degradation and decay to which Christian thought and practice had sunk. It takes a truly decadent mind to discard content in favor of external form, to attach so much importance to externalities that the essence disappears under their opaque weight. And that is precisely what the Christian sects did.
The subjects under controversy varied from place to place; the Christians of al Sham [Al Sham refers to the lands otherwise known as Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan. -Tr.] disputed other questions than those of Hirah or Abyssinia. In their contact with the Christians, the Jews did nothing to calm the raging controversies or to temper the generated antagonism. The Arabs, on the other hand, were on good terms with the Christians of Damascus and Yaman with whom they came into contact during the winter and summer caravan trips, as well as with the Abyssinian Christians who visited them from time to time. It was natural for them to refrain from taking sides with any Christian party against another. The Arabs were happy with their paganism, contented to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors, and prepared to leave both Christians and Jews alone as long as these were not interfering with their religion. Thus, idol worship continued to flourish among them and even spread to the centers inhabited by their Christian and Jewish neighbors, namely Najran and Yathrib. The Jews of Yathrib tolerated idol worship, coexisted with it, and finally befriended it as the trade routes linked them to the pagan Arabs with mutually beneficial relations.
The Spread of Paganism
Perhaps the desperate struggle of the Christian sects against one another was not the sole cause of why the Arabs remained pagan. Varieties of paganism were still adhered to even by the people who had converted to Christianity. Egyptian and Greek paganism was quite apparent in the ideologies and practices of many Christian sects. Indeed, they were apparent in some of the views of orthodox Christianity itself. The school of Alexandria and its philosophy still enjoyed a measure of influence, though it was naturally reduced from that which it enjoyed during the time of the Ptolemies, at the beginning of the Christian era. At any rate, this influence was deeply imbedded in the consciousness of the people, and its brilliant logic, though sophistic in nature, still exercised appeal for a polytheistic paganism of human deities so close and lovable to man. It seems to me that polytheism has been the strongest appeal of paganism to weak souls in all times and places. The weak soul is by nature incapable of rising high enough to establish a contact with total being and, in a supreme moment of consciousness, to grasp the unity of total being represented in that which is greater than all that exists, in God, the Lord of Majesty. The weak soul therefore stops at one of the differentiated phenomena of total being, like the sun or the moon or the fire, and awkwardly withdraws from rising beyond it to the unity of being itself.
What poverty of spirit characterizes those souls who, arrested by their grasp of a confused, insignificant little meaning of total being in an idol, commune with that object and wrap it with a halo of sanctity! We still witness this phenomenon in many countries of the world despite all the claims this modern world makes for its advances in science and civilization. Such is what the visitors see at St. Peter's cathedral in Rome where the foot of a statue of a certain saint is physically worn out by the kisses which the saint's worshipers proffer to it, so that the church has to change it for a new foot every now and then. If we could keep this in mind, we would excuse those Arabs whom God had not yet guided to the true faith. We would be less quick to condemn them for their continued idolatry and following in the footsteps of their ancestors when we remember that they were the witnesses of a desperate struggle of Christian neighbors against one another who had not yet liberated themselves completely from paganism. How can we not excuse them when pagan conditions are still with us and seem to be inextricably rooted in the world? How can we not excuse the pre-Islamic Arabs when paganism is still evident in the idolatrous practices of so many Muslims of the present world despite the fact that Islam, the one unflinching enemy of paganism that had once succeeded in sweeping away every other worship besides that of God, the Lord of majesty, is their professed religion?
In their worship of idols, the Arabs followed many ways difficult for the modern researcher to discover and understand. The Prophet destroyed the idols of the Ka'bah and commanded his companions to destroy all idols wherever they might be. After they destroyed the idols' physical existence, the Muslims launched a campaign against the very mention of idols and sought to wipe them out from history, literature, and, indeed, from consciousness itself. The evidence the Qur'an gives for the existence of idolatry in pre-Islamic times as well as the stories which circulated in the second century A.H. concerning idolatrous practices, prove that idolatry once enjoyed a position of tremendous importance. The same evidence proves that it was of many kinds, that idolatrous practices were of great variety and that idols differed widely in the degree of sacralization conferred upon them. Every tribe had a different idol which it worshiped. Generally, objects of worship belonged to three genres: metal and wooden statues, stone statues, and shapeless masses of stone which one tribe or another consecrated because its origin was thought to be heavenly, whereas in reality it was only a piece of volcanic or meteoric rock. The most finely made statues were those which belonged to Yaman. No wonder for the Yamanis were more advanced in technology than the people of Hijaz, Najd, or Kindah. The classical works on pre-Islamic idols, however, did not report to us that any fine statues existed anywhere, except perhaps what they reported concerning Hubal, namely that it was made out of carnelian in the likeness of man, that its arm once broke off and was replaced by another contributed by Quraysh and made of solid gold. Hubal was the greatest member of the Arab pantheon and resided in Makkah, inside the Ka'bah. Pilgrims came to its shrine from all corners. Still unsatisfied by these great idols to which they prayed and offered sacrifices, the Arabs used to adopt other statues or sacred stones for domestic worship and devotion. They used to circumambulate the "holy" precincts of these gods both before leaving on a trip and upon returning home. They often carried their idols with them when they traveled, presuming that the idol had permitted its worshiper to travel. All these statues, whether in the Ka'bah, around it or scattered around the tribes or the provinces, were regarded as intermediaries between their worshipers and the supreme god. They regarded the worship of them as a means of rapprochement with God even though in reality that same worship had caused them to forget the true worship of God.
Makkah's Place in Arabia
Despite the fact that Yaman was the most advanced province in the Arabian Peninsula and the most civilized on account of its fertility and the sound administration of its water resources, its religious practices never commanded the respect of the inhabitants of the desert. Its temples never constituted a single center of pilgrimage. Makkah, on the other hand, and its Ka'bah, the house of Isma'il, was the object of pilgrimage ever since Arab history began. Every Arab sought to travel to it. In it the holy months were observed with far more ado than anywhere else. For this reason, as well as for its distinguished position in the trade of the Peninsula as a whole, it was regarded as the capital. Further, it was to be the birthplace of Muhammad, the Arab Prophet, and became the object of the yearning of the world throughout the centuries. Its ancient house was to remain holy forever. The tribe of Quraysh was to continue to enjoy a distinguished and sovereign position. All this was to remain so forever despite the fact that the Makkans and their city continued to lead a life closer to the hardness of bedouin existence which had been their custom for many tens of centuries.