Arabia, Pre-Islam

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The term "Arabia" has been variously applied in both modern and ancient times to refer to a vast territory stretching from the borders of the Fertile Crescent in northern Syria to the tip of the Arabian Peninsula and from the borders of the Euphrates to the fertile regions of the Transjordan. For the ancients, this vague term, "Arabia," referred to the dwelling places of the varieties of South Semitic speakers lumped together under the term "Arab." For speakers of Hebrew and Aramaic, the term Arab (˓arab) carried the semantic notion of the desert or the wilderness (˓arabah), since the Arabs they encountered were primarily the nomadic and seminomadic desert dwellers engaged in long-distance commerce, animal husbandry, or supplying cavalry troops to imperial armies. The result is that ancient textual references to Arabia and its inhabitants, the Arabs, are both inconsistent and imprecise in terms of geographic boundaries, ethnic identity, and language use. The meager textual evidence available to us shows us that many of the northern Arabs used Aramaic and Hebrew as well as varieties of Arabic in pre-Islamic times. After the rise of Islam, however, the Arabic of northwest Arabia, the region of the Hijaz, became the dominant language of the Arabs, and it, along with its cognate dialects, formed the Arabic known today.

The geography and natural ecology of the Arabian peninsula has affected both the culture and the history of Arabia. It is bounded in the north by a desert of soft sand, the Nafud, as well as a desert in the south, the Rub˓ al-Khali, the so-called Empty Quarter. Both the Red Sea on the west and the Gulf on the east are barriers to entry with few natural ports. There are no permanent water-courses in Arabia and only scattered oases in the interior. The ancient geographers used the term natura maligna for Arabia, and even when using Arabia Felix, "Happy Arabia," for the south, they intended some irony. Its average rainfall is less than three inches per year, and much of that falls within a period of just four or five days. Because of the forbidding landscape and the harsh climate, for much of Arabia's history, it resisted successful invasion. Such harsh conditions, however, have provided refuge for those fleeing persecution and those seeking the economic opportunities of long-distance trading. Trade was assisted because Arabia was the home of the domestication of the West Asiatic camel, the dromedary, and the invention, around the beginning of the first millennium c.e., of the North Arabian camel saddle, which enabled camels to be used for cavalry warfare as well as for transporting trade goods.


Historical knowledge of Arabia goes back to the Greek historian Herodotus, to a few Akkadian texts, and to the Bible, but sound historical records only come from the period of Roman domination of the eastern Mediterranean. Much legendary material has influenced the writings of the early history of Arabia, particularly the biblical legends, which hold that the Amelikites were the first "Arabs." This legend is adopted by Arabs themselves, who link themselves to the Israelite soldiers who annihilated the Amelikites and settled in the Hijaz in their stead. R. Dozy and D. S. Margoliouth elaborated a secularized version of the biblical legends to make Arabia the Semitic prototypical home and Arabic the prototypical Semitic language. Associated with this theory is the so-called desiccation theory of Arabia, which holds that Arabia was lush and verdant in prehistorical times, only becoming dry later, driving out the Semitic inhabitants into the Mediterranean basin. While modern geological exploration of Arabia has substantiated a shift in climate in the peninsula from more wet toward dry, there is no evidence to substantiate any of the theories that Arabia was the original home of the Semites or that all Semitic languages derive from Arabic.

According to a report that combines inscriptional evidence and legend, Arabia was the temporary capital of Nabonidus (556–539 b.c.e.), the last ruler of Babylon. In the third year of his reign, he invaded the Hijaz as far as Yathrib (Medina), and dominated the famous Arabian caravan cities in the northwest quadrant. Some scholars see his motives as economic, while others dismiss the historicity of the whole event as part of a Jewish midrashic invention.


Among the important pre-Islamic peoples of Northwest Arabia were the Nabataeans, who, by the time of the arrival of Roman imperial presence in the eastern Mediterranean, dominated the region's trade from around Damascus to the Hijaz. They had been pastoral nomads who had settled in their heartland around Petra. The Nabataeans plied their trade through the areas of Transjordan, across the Wadi ˓Arabah to Gaza and al-˓Arish (Rhinocolura). There is also evidence that they used the interior route of the Wadi Sirhan to carry goods to Bostra for distribution to Damascus and beyond. Nabataean wealth and influence attracted the Romans into an unsuccessful invasion of Arabia in 26 b.c.e. under the leadership of Caesar Augustus's Egyptian prefect, Aelius Gallus. The Nabataeans were able to resist Roman domination until 106 c.e., when Arabia Nabataea became a Roman province. In later history, the name "Nabataean" became identified with irrigation and agriculture, because the Nabataeans are credited with the development of hydraulic technology in the region. In modern Arabic, "Nabataean" (nabati) refers to vernacular poetry in the ancient style.

Most modern historians regard the Nabataeans as Arabs, but the picture is more complex and illustrative of the problems of ethnic identification in the pre-Islamic period. The Nabataeans were philhellenes, using Greek art and culture, and Aretas III issued coins with Greek legends after 82 b.c.e. They used a form of Arabic as their language for trade within the Arabian peninsula, writing it down in a modified Aramaic script that influenced the development of the North Arabian alphabetic script. They acted as a culture-bridge between the Arabian interior and the Roman Hellenized Mediterranean, and, depending on who was reporting, they could present a different face to different peoples, Greek, Aramaic, or Arabic.

Jews had been inhabitants of Arabia from biblical times, but the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 c.e. sent larger numbers into Arabia. Around this time the apostle Paul spent time in Arabia after his conversion to Christianity, possibly to recruit converts, as did another Pharisee, Rabbi Akiba, who went to Arabia to obtain support for Simon Bar Kochba in the Second Roman War in 132 c.e. Some Jews formed independent communities in Arabia, such as the small enclaves of priests, who kept themselves isolated to avoid ritual contamination so that they would be ready under Levitical strictures to resume their duties if the Temple should be rebuilt. Most, however, seem to have joined existing communities comprised of Jews and non-Jews along the trade routes stretching from the Hijaz to Yemen. The most prominent of these settlements was the city of Yathrib, known in both Aramaic and Arabic as Medina.

Roman Arabia

By 106 c.e., the Romans dominated most of the former territories of the Nabataeans and the adjacent Syrian cities of Gerasa and Philadelphia (modern Jarash and Amman in Jordan), creating a province through the formal annexation of the Nabataean kingdom under the Roman emperor Trajan. This province, known as Provincia Arabia, was bounded by the western coast of the Sinai Peninsula, the present Syrian-Lebanese border to a line south of Damascus, and the eastern coast of the Red Sea as far as Egra (Mada˒in Salih in the Hijaz). Gaza prospered as a major seaport and outlet for the province's commerce. This trade continued under Roman domination, and the borders were fortified by semipermeable lines of fortifications and client states. Under the Romans, Bostra (Bozrah; now Busra ash-Sham) in the north became the capital around a legionary camp. Petra remained a religious center until the penetration of Christianity in the area. The construction of a highway, the Via Traiana Nova, linking Damascus, via Bostra, Gerasa, Philadelphia, and Petra, to Aelana on the Gulf of Aqaba, set the border of Arabia (Limes Arabicus) along the lines of an ancient biblical route. Paved by Claudius Severus, the first governor of Provincia Arabia in about 114 c.e., it improved communication and established a modicum of control over the influx of pastoral nomads into settled territory. More importantly, the road insured the increase in prosperity of the cities along the route.

At the end of the third century, the Roman emperor Diocletian divided Arabia into a northern province, enlarged by the Palestinian regions of Auranitis and Trachonitis, with Bostra as the capital, and a southern province, with Petra as capital. The southern province, united to Palestine by the emperor Constantine I "the Great," became known as Palaestina Salutaris (or Tertia) when detached again in 357 and 358 c.e. The cities of both provinces enjoyed a marked revival of prosperity in the fifth and sixth centuries and fell into decay only after the Arab conquest after 632 c.e.

During the period in which the Judaean Desert finds were deposited in the caves, the area containing the discovery sites remained off the main conduits of trade and communication, and it is their remoteness that, for the most part, provided their value as retreats from the demands of the central settled world. The practice of using the Judaean Desert caves as genizot, religious treasuries, continued from the time of the Roman Wars through as late as the eleventh century c.e. The presence of Byzantine Greek and Arabic texts indicates that the local populations both knew of the existence of the caves and made use of them as depositories for important documents. This fact has had important implications in discussions about the presence of copies of the "Damascus Covenant" found in the Cairo Genizah. None of the texts found at the Judaean Desert discovery sites mentions Provincia Arabia or other geographic terms associated with Arabia. The texts, particularly the texts from the Byzantine and Islamic periods, indicate that the inhabitants of the region, who deposited the finds, were well connected not only with Palestine but also with Egypt and the larger world of the Mediterranean.

Southern Arabia

The southern portion of Arabia, known generically as the Yemen, had ancient connections with Africa, India, and the Far East, as well as the Mediterranean. It was culturally and linguistically connected with the Horn of Africa. Among the theories of the Arabian origin of the Semites, some have cited the presence of speakers of a Semitic language unlike Arabic in Yemeni highlands. Additionally, the relationship between South Arabian and Ethiopic languages points to continuous contacts between the two areas. Attempts, however, to devise a comprehensive ethnographic categorization of the inhabitants of Arabia have so far failed. This is in part due to problems with categorization itself (what is a Semite, for example) and in part due to the paucity of evidence. Relying on Arabian histories and indigenous theories of ethnography are problematic, because all were written after the rise of Islam, which advances the religious notions of the family relationship among all Arabs and promotes the elaboration of the explanation of that relationship through genealogy. The so-called Table of Nations from Genesis 10 was invoked by early Islamic scholars, and the figures of Joktan, Hazarmaveth, and Sheba are identified with Qahtan, Hadramawt, and the Sabaeans.

An increasing amount of archaeological and inscriptional evidence support the meager and legendary historical material surrounding the histories and influence of at least four major kingdoms in southern Arabia, the Sabaeans, or kingdom of Sheba; the Minaeans; the kingdom of Qataban; and the kingdom of Hadramawt. These kingdoms were supported by a combination of trade and agriculture. Elaborate aqueducts, dams, and terracing helped sustain these kingdoms as well as giving evidence of their ability to marshal considerable resources for their construction and maintenance. We do not know the reasons for the demise of these kingdoms. The Qur˒an (34:15–16) attributes the breaking of the dam at Ma˒rib in the kingdom of the Sabaeans as divine retribution for their sins. Secular theories attribute the demise of organized agriculture in the southern region to the combined factors of the repeated breaking of dams and waterworks and the rise of the influence of Ethiopia in southern Arabia.

It is probably from the time of the breaking of the Ma˒rib dam that some southern Arabian tribes migrated north, intermixing with the Arabs of the Hijaz in many places, including the city of Yathrib/Medina. This migration may also be linked with increasing economic opportunities in the northern part of Arabia resulting from the domestication of the camel, the invention of the North Arabian camel saddle, and the increasing use of camel cavalry forces in the armies of the Roman and Persian empires.

Premodern Arabia possessed little arable land, but southern Arabia was the habitat for frankincense and myrrh, the aromatic resins from conifers found in Arabia and the Horn of Africa. Because southern Arabia was the home of those much-sought-after aromatics and the trans-shipment point for Asian and African trade goods, including slaves, it was a much-desired location for colonies and extensions of empires. These products were sought as luxury trade-goods from as early as Old Kingdom Egypt, when this was known as the land of Punt. They were used for funerary and liturgical ceremonies, often in large quantities. The use of frankincense is attested in the biblical offerings mentioned in Leviticus 2:14–16 and 24:7, and also in the Talmud as a medicine and a painkiller. In Christian liturgy, incense was an important part of the celebration of the mass. Trade in aromatics, gold, and luxury items from Africa and India made the west coast of Arabia the conduit to the Mediterranean and linked southern Arabia with the settled areas of Syria.

Knowledge of Persian interest in Arabia begins with Darius I (r. 521–485 b.c.e.). He sent an exploratory expedition from India to the Red Sea, probably to increase trade. Greek interest was stimulated first by Alexander the Great and Nearchus of Crete, but Alexander died in 328 b.c.e., just before executing plans to conquer the peninsula. This interest prompted the Greek naturalist and philosopher Theophrastus (c. 372–287 b.c.e.) to describe South Arabia, providing one of the earliest historical accounts. The Ptolemies of Egypt, successors to Alexander's rule, pursued ambitions in the Red Sea. The Syrian Seleucids promoted the use of the northern routes to India, probably in an attempt to diminish Egyptian and Arab domination of eastern luxury goods. The establishment of the Parthian state in the mid-third century b.c.e. weakened the Seleucids, but Antiochus III was still strong enough to conduct an expedition in 204 and 205 against Gerrha on the Arabian shore of the Persian Gulf.

In the second and first centuries b.c.e., major changes took place in the economy and power of the southern kingdoms of Arabia. The Mediterranean world learned the secret of the use of the monsoon trade winds to navigate to India, and mountain tribes began invading the settled kingdoms. By the end of the first century b.c.e., the Sabaean kingdom was under the rule of the tribe of Hamdan, and the kingdoms of Ma˓in and Qataban were destroyed. Roman attempts to conquer Arabia Felix failed, but Rome's influence was extended first through the Nabataeans and later through Egyptian and Ethiopic Christianity.

Sometime around 50 c.e., an anonymous author wrote the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, an account in Greek of the ethnography and trade in the Red Sea. In the middle of the second century c.e., the geographer Claudius Ptolemy (fl. 127–151 c.e.) wrote a detailed description of Arabia from the perspective of Roman interests in the region. While some scholars identify some sites mentioned by Ptolemy with modern Arabian cities, like Macoraba as Mecca and Yathrippa as Yathrib/Medina, others discount this identification and claim that knowledge of ancient Arabia cannot be derived from from the Greco-Roman sources. In the case of the identification of Yathrippa as Yathrib, there is inscriptional support, however, from a Minaean inscription, where Ythrib is found. The general picture from these sources is that an active culture of trade and agriculture linked Arabia with Africa, South Asia, and the East Mediterranean world.

Arabia Between Two Empires

By the middle of the third century c.e., religious and political competition between the Roman empire and the new Persian Sassanian empire had intensified with Arabia as one of the centers of the conflict. Both sides were intent on political and economic domination through conversion. For the Romans, that meant Christianity, and sometime around 213 c.e., Origen visited Arabia, probably at Petra, to bring that area into religious and political orthodoxy. In 244 c.e., M. Julius Philippus, known as Philip the Arab, acceded to the Roman imperial throne, and there is strong evidence that he was a Christian. His predecessor, Gordianus III, had defeated the second Sassanian emperor, Shapur I (r. 241–272 c.e.), and, although he concluded a peace with the Persians, continued attempts to control Arabia. The Persians, whose official religion was the nonproselytizing Zoroastrianism, used Nestorian Christian and Jewish missionaries as their agents in Arabia.

Knowledge of Arabian history from the fourth through the beginning of the sixth centuries is meager because of the lack of written sources. In part, this is due to the decline of the urban centers in Arabia. While Arabia was no less strategically important to the two empires during this period, the creation of the buffer-states of the Lakhmids on the Sassanian side and the Ghassanids on the Roman/Byzantine side provided both empires indirect means of controlling the flow of goods and traffic into the settled areas. Because the buffer states were a main source of camel cavalry, some scholars have noted a process of Bedouinization corresponding to the decline of urban areas in this period as it became more profitable to raise and sell camels. The Ghassanids and the Lakhmids mirrored their sponsor-states by engaging in warfare, even when Rome and Persia were ostensibly at peace.

In the sixth century c.e., conflicts again arose, this time through the agency of the Persian-sponsored Jewish state in the Yemen under Yusuf Dhu Nuwas and Byzantium's Monophysite ally, the kingdom of Aksum. When Dhu Nuwas attempted to return Najran to his control, he met resistance from armed Christian missionaries, whom he defeated. With Byzantine naval support, the Aksumites invaded Arabia, defeated Dhu Nuwas, and established an Abyssinian-ruled client state. Its ruler, Abraha, rebuilt the Ma rib dam erected a cathedral in San˓a˒, and attempted to conquer Mecca. His defeat, traditionally in 570 c.e. and recorded in Qur˒an 105, coupled with an invasion of the Yemen by the Sassanian ruler Khusraw I Anushirwan (r. 531–579 c.e.), drove the Abyssinians from Arabia. The southern portion of Arabia remained under Persian control until the rise of Islam.


Shortly before the birth of Muhammad in 570 c.e., Mecca and its environs in the Hijaz rose to historical prominence. In part, this view is in retrospect from the vantage of knowing that Islam came from there, but it is also in part because the dominant Meccan tribe seems to have been able to amass some political and economic hold over the region. The tribe of Qureish, whose name possibly means "dugong," was likely a group of Arabs involved in the Red Sea trade and moved inland with the decline of Roman authority in that sea. Their rule was both economic and theocratic. Their major shrine was the Ka˓ba at Mecca, one of several such Ka˓ba in Arabia at the time. They managed to import the worship of many local Arabian deities to Mecca, so that polytheism under the Qureish became a kind of federal cult.

It is difficult to speak with any precision about the native polytheism of the Arabs, because almost all of what is known comes through hostile Islamic sources. Allah was worshipped as a creator deity and a "high god," but the everyday cult seems to have been dominated by several astral deities, ancestors, and chthonic spirits, such as the jinn. Animal sacrifices seem to have been used to propitiate the more than three hundred deities mentioned by early Muslim historians. Circumambulation of the Ka˓ba and other cultic objects was also a usual practice, often during "sacred" months of pilgrimage to religious sites. Little is known of the theological or moral nature of pre-Islamic polytheism in Arabia, and the Muslim critique of the pre-Islamic period portrays it as devoid of all redeeming features. From the scanty evidence available, the cult promoted loyalty to family, clan, and tribe, a sentiment that Arabs carried over into the Islamic period as Islam was characterized as a "super-tribe" uniting all Arabs under one common genealogy.

While Christianity was present from an early period in Arabia, and there is evidence of the political connections and dimensions of Arabian Christians to their coreligionists in the surrounding countries, little is known of Arabian Christian beliefs and practices except through Islamic sources. Qur˒anic evidence indicates that, while the full range of Gospel narratives is not represented, the Qur˒an represents particularly the Gospel of Luke quite accurately and with close readings. Recent scholarship in this area is challenging the earlier notions that the Qur˒an portrayed only a heterodox form of Christianity and is pointing to a more mainstream pre-Islamic Christianity, albeit divided among the various Christological heresies of the day.

As seen from the above survey of Arabian history, religion among the pre-Islamic Arabs was closely tied to the political ambitions of several foreign powers that wished to dominate Arabia. At the time of the rise of Islam, converting to one of the varieties of Judaism or Christianity in Arabia meant choosing not only a religion but also a political and social agenda dominated by a foreign power.

Literary Legacy

One of the major legacies of pre-Islamic Arabian culture to later Arab and Islamic culture was the development of the poetic and formal language often termed "classical" Arabic. In the century or century and a half before the birth of Muhammad in 570 c.e., the Arab tribes in the Hijaz developed a literary form of Arabic that stood alongside the various dialects. This was a composite, formal language with a highly inflected grammatical system. It also had a flexible system for generating new vocabulary based on extensive use of the Arabic verbal root system that allowed for easy adoption of new terms and concepts within the language itself. It was also open to the adoption of terms from the surrounding languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, Ethiopic, among others. As a "meta-language" it undoubtedly reflected the growing political expansion of the Qureish and their economic unification of the Hijaz, but it also seems to have grown from the common experiences of local religious practices, Bedouin travel songs, and the panegyrics of the courts of the Arab dynasties along the borders of the Roman and Persian empires.

There is also speculation that this language was used for formal prose in treaties, formal agreements, and in writing Jewish and Christian scripture, but, as mentioned above, there is little evidence of biblical translations into Arabic in the pre-Islamic period. Instead, there is more evidence that Jews and Christians had their own "dialects" of Arabic, with added vocabulary from the Jewish and Christian languages of the eastern Mediterranean. These dialects likely served as the conduits for much of the foreign religious vocabulary that found its way into Arabic.

The poetry that has survived from the pre-Islamic period was transmitted orally and only transcribed in the Islamic period. It was composed by a poet to be preserved and recited by a reciter, a rawi, who may also have been a poet or an apprentice. In this poetry, each poetic line had independent meaning, and the entire poem was comprised of thematic sections, which concentrated on travel, love, praise, and so on. The most famous of these "odes," termed qasidas, are known as the Mu˓allaqat, or "suspended odes." Various stories are given to explain the name, but the writers of these poems became known as the masters of Arabic poetic composition, and their style of poetry so influential that later Islamic poetry in Persian and other Islamic languages as well as Arabic survived until modern times.

The style of poetry known as saj˓, rhymed prose, was another influential poetic form, apparently used by seers and holy men for prognosticative pronouncements. This form of poetic language is found in many places in the Qur˒an, giving rise to the accusation that Muhammad was a poet or mantic seer.

A photo of an alabaster relief of a camel and its rider appears in the volume one color plates.

See alsoArabic Language ; Arabic Literature ; Asabiyya ; Empires: Sassanian ; Muhammad .


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