World History 1 169 - 11.1.1 Arabia on the Eve of Islam

Seen from the outside, the Arabian Peninsula of the fifth and sixth centuries CE was a seemingly marginal space, on the southern fringes of the last great realms of antiquity, the Byzantine (Roman) and Sasanian (Persian) Empires. The geography of much of Arabia was harsh; the peninsula was filled with many dry and inhospitable places where rainfall, access to water, and cultivatable land were in short supply. Even today, a large portion of the center of modern Saudi Arabia is taken up by the “Empty Quarter,” the Rubʽ al-Khali, a 250,000-square-mile sand desert that barely sustains the few local Arab tribes that continue to live in the region. To many, the Arabian Peninsula might not seem like an obvious setting for the rise of a ruling empire and one of the world’s largest religious traditions (Figure 11.4).

A map is shown of the northeastern portion of Africa, southeastern Europe, and southwestern Asia. The Adriatic Sea, Mediterranean Sea, Aegean Sea, Black Sea, Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea, Persian Gulf (Arabian Gulf), Caspian Sea, and Gulf of Oman are labeled. A section of southern Europe east of Italy through Greece and Turkey, south through Syria, Israel, Jordan, and extending to a northeastern portion of Egypt is highlighted orange to denote “Sasanian Empire.” A thin coastal section along the Persian Gulf of northeastern Saudi Arabia including Qatar and some of the United Arab Emirates are highlighted green to denote “Byzantine Empire.” Other lands highlighted green include areas heading north from there through Iraq, Iran, and the western portions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Figure 11.4 This map shows the Byzantine (Roman) and Sasanian (Persian) Empires at the beginning of the seventh century CE. Note the long border the two empires shared, and the southern borders with Arabia that remained out of their direct control. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The reality, however, is that the Arabian Peninsula is—and was—more diverse than it might immediately seem. In the fifth, sixth, and early seventh centuries, it was the home of disparate tribes often united by the bonds of kinship typical of nomadic and seminomadic peoples around the world, and divided for the same reason. As they do with the Celts, Iroquois, Mongols, and Persians (to name but a few), historians often group peoples together because of their use of a common language, their habitation of a specific geographic area, and aspects of culture they share such as food, dress, and religious practices. But beyond these shared features, little unified the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula prior to the seventh century. Many communities in the region were divided along tribal lines while vying with one another for power, prestige, influence, and available resources.

The great Byzantine and Persian Empires to the immediate north had a history of expansion and conflict. Despite their strength, however, neither desired to dominate Arabia. To those classical states, much of Arabia appeared as a backwater occupied by migratory and aggressive Arab tribes and offered no reason for them to turn their imperial ambitions southward. Few resources were produced in the region that suggested conquest would be worthwhile, even if western Arabia did play a role in the caravans of trade goods that traveled between east and west.

However, the region was a tapestry of unique cultures and history. The Bedouin were migratory Arab tribes that largely subsisted on animal herding and, in some instances, on the raiding of trade caravans and settled communities. Many Bedouin and other seminomadic Arabs practiced polytheism, the worship of many gods and goddesses who were often considered patrons of certain tribes or residents of certain locales. Polytheistic religions were not all that was found in the Arabian Peninsula: the monotheistic faiths of Judaism and Christianity were both present in the region before the arrival of Islam, and they influenced its formation. Given the harshness of the environment, in fact, during the ancient and late antique periods, important monasteries were founded for Christian worship, allowing the monks there to fully dedicate themselves to an ascetic life detached from the earthly world (Figure 11.5).

A picture of various buildings built tightly next to each other within square-shaped high brick walls is shown along the backdrop of a tall, brown, rocky mountain with a blue sky in the background. The buildings are various shapes, sizes, and colors, with one of the buildings running the length of the area in the back and taller than the rest. The buildings have windows throughout and are various shades of brown, black, and white. The brick wall around the buildings is brown and has two rounded and one square column in front, one rounded one on the left front corner, and a square tower on the left side rising higher than the wall. Between two of the columns on the front there is a cemented walkway coming out and running the length of the enclosure toward the right of the picture into an area with green trees of various sizes and shapes. Some of the trees are within smaller stone walls, and some rise higher behind the buildings. More short, windowed structures are seen in the far right of the picture. The terrain in the forefront of the picture is rocky and barren. One small building sits on the mountain in the background behind the walled enclosure.
Figure 11.5 Perhaps the most famous Christian monastery of the Arabian Peninsula is St. Catherine’s, constructed in the sixth century CE and adjacent to Mount Sinai (in the background of the photo), where the prophet Moses is said to have received from God the religious laws known as the “Ten Commandments.” (credit: “Saint Catherine's Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt” by Joonas Plaan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

In the very south of the Arabian Peninsula, in what is Yemen today, was a kingdom known as Himyar. Its rulers controlled some of the most fertile lands in the region. They built their state on agricultural produce, on luxury goods such as frankincense and myrrh, and on their role as intermediaries in both East African and Indian Ocean trade. The Himyarites and their predecessors the Sabaeans played significant roles in long-distance trade, using camel caravans along the western coast of Arabia to bring goods from Africa and Asia to the markets in places such as Alexandria, Damascus, Jerusalem, and beyond (Figure 11.6). Their cultural influence was important, too, with a number of the southern Arab tribes connecting their history and lineage directly with these prestigious states. The decision by the Himyarite rulers to convert to Judaism in the late fourth century CE made monotheism more prominent in the region.

A map of southern Europe, northern Africa, and southwestern Asia is shown. The Adriatic Sea, Mediterranean Sea, Aegean Sea, Black Sea, Caspian Sea, Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, and the Arabian Sea are labeled. An oval area in eastern Africa at the southern end of the Red Sea is highlighted orange and labeled “Kingdom of Aksum.” Most of the country of Yemen is highlighted green indicating the “Kingdom of Himyar.” A red dotted line heads north from the city of Aden along the Gulf of Aden in Yemen to the city of Mecca, then Petra in Arabia, crossing west to Africa to the city of Memphis. One line splits off and goes north toward Alexandria on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The other red dotted line heads south through Egypt along the Nile River through Lake Nasser and down to the city of Meroe and then veers off southwest into Africa. Another red dotted line starts at the city of Maleo which sits on the African side across the Gulf of Aden from the city of Aden. The line heads north to the city of Aksum and then Adulis which is on the western side of the Red Sea. Then the line meets up with the other red dotted line in Meroe. A purple line begins in Memphis in northern Africa and heads south in the Red Sea with stops in Berenice on the western side of the Red Sea, then Adulis, and then Aden and ending with two arrows in the Arabian Sea, one heading northeast and one heading south. Other cities labeled from north to south include: Damascus, Jerusalem, and Roha.
Figure 11.6 The Arabian Kingdom of Himyar (shaded green) and the African Kingdom of Aksum (orange) both played important roles in the overland and oversea Silk Roads trade, bringing goods northward to markets in Egypt, Palestine, and beyond. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

In the very north of Arabia, along the southern borders of the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires, were the Arabs who had the most sustained interactions with those two imperial powers. While tribes in the region had long acted as trade intermediaries between the Mediterranean world and the Indian Ocean states, those of northern Arabia were most regularly engaged in harassing the trade caravans that brought goods to and from the urban imperial centers. To combat this aggression on their southern borders, both the Byzantines and the Persians opted to employ certain Arab confederations to create a buffer between the settled peoples and the raiders from the south. Best known were the Ghassanids and the Lakhmids, who were brought into the service of the Byzantines and Persians, respectively, by the sixth century CE and became increasingly acculturated to them.

The Ghassanids adopted many elements of Byzantine culture, including Christianity. In fact, it was among Christian Arabs specifically that historians have found some of the earliest surviving uses of the Arabic script, from the seventh century. The Byzantine emperors also formally recognized and rewarded the Ghassanids, at least for a time. The Ghassanid ruler was documented as a phylarch (local ruler or chieftain) and given titles of honor by the Byzantine emperor Justinian during the sixth century.

The Lakhmids established themselves in the central Iraqi city of Al-Hirah and were recognized as allies of the Sasanian Persians from the late fourth century onward (Figure 11.7). Some of the Lakhmids embraced a form of Christianity known as Nestorianism and, like the Ghassanids, were able to thrive on the patronage of the great empire while protecting its southern borders from other Arabs. Both tribes were more than just servants of their larger patrons, however. They were allies with a certain degree of autonomy that allowed their societies to flourish. The money and support they received allowed them to become powerful confederations in comparison to other Arab tribes, and their conversion to Christianity allowed the further spread of monotheism in the region.

A drawing is shown with men working to build a building. At the top of the drawing there is blue sky seen over the walls and a vertical beige-colored panel on the left with ancient writing in black ink. One wall of a beige building is seen with vertical lines and a gray arched opening in the middle. A brown scaffolding is seen in front of the doorway with two men – one on the top tier with a tool and a brick looking down while a man below him on the next tier holds on to one of the side beams. Above them on the roof in the middle, two men are laying bricks while a man on the right side hands them the bricks. A man on the left side is lowering a basket with a rope to a man standing on the ground with his arms outstretched. A ladder stands to the right of the scaffolding and a man is climbing down holding a rectangular object. At the bottom of the scaffolding a man is holding a square object in his hands at his side. On the ground in the forefront there are men working at various tasks. Two men are chipping away at stone, two men dig while one man leans over with a rectangular object close by, five men carry various items on their backs and in their arms, and two men are carrying a stretcher of stones. All of the men are dressed in a variety of solid colored loose-fitting shirts or bare-chested, wear knee length pants, turbans and head cloths, belts, and caps and all but one are barefoot. They all have different skin colors and some have facial hair.
Figure 11.7 This late fifteenth-century manuscript page by the renowned Persian miniaturist Kamal al-din Bihzad shows the construction of the fort at Kharnaq, a castle near the Lakhmid capital of Al-Hirah. (credit: “The construction of the palace of Khavarnaq” by British Museum/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The relationship between the Byzantines and the Sasanian Persians was very often tense, however. Both empires had ambitions to expand their influence, and they regularly skirmished with one another and attempted to meddle in each other’s politics, including by supporting rival claimants to the throne. Their combative relationship was not unique in late antiquity. When Rome was still a united empire and Persia was ruled by the Parthian dynasty, conflict between those two sides occurred regularly. By the sixth century, however, such conflicts between the two great powers of the region were increasingly costly and risky. Both states had a good deal to lose from open warfare, and much of their conflict played out through proxies, often the Arab Ghassanids and the Lakhmids. This arrangement was beneficial for the Arab tribes so long as payment and recognition of their role was forthcoming. By the beginning of the seventh century, however, much had changed.

The borderlands between the Byzantine Empire and Sasanian Persia were often where conflicts broke out, and this happened several times during the sixth century, especially in places like Iraq and Armenia (now called the Caucasus). In the year 602, however, the conflict exploded. The Byzantine emperor Maurice, who had helped the Sasanian ruler Khosrow II regain the throne of Persia and brought peace between the two sides, was murdered by his own troops. They installed a new emperor, Phocas, and Khosrow vowed revenge, using the coup as a reason to begin what historians call “the last great war of antiquity” (Figure 11.8).

A map is shown of the northeastern tip of Egypt, Arabia, and the land north up to the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea at the east and the Aegean Sea to the west. The Persian Gulf (Arabian Gulf) is seen in the southeast portion of the map and the Red Sea is seen in the southwest. Black arrows are seen throughout the map indicating “Kavad I campaigns.” A black arrow begins southeast of the city of Dvin in Armenia and heads west to Theodosiopolis then south to Amida. Southeast of Amida a black arrow begins at Dara and heads west to Edessa. In the southern portion at the city of Ctesiphon along the Tigris River a black arrow begins and travels north along the Euphrates River to Circesium and then through the city of Callinicum and north past Carrhae. Blue arrows are seen on the map indicating “Khosrow I campaigns.” Two blue arrows begin in the same area southeast of Dvin. One blue arrow heads northwest past Tbilisi in Georgia and the other heads toward Theodosiopolis and west almost reaching the city of Caesarea, and then swings back east past Amida and then heads south of Martyropolois. A blue arrow heads from south of Dara west to an area south of Edessa while a blue arrow starts in Antioch and heads east to Edessa and then on to Dara. The final blue arrow begins in Ctesiphon and heads north along the Euphrates River past Circesium and then splits, one going north almost to Edessa. The other blue arrow heads through Callinicum and then splits, one going south past Sergiopolis in Syria and the other heading west past Sura and Beroea and on to Antioch, then south to Apamea. Red dashed arrows are shown indicating “Khosrow II campaigns.” Three red dashed arrows all begin in Antioch. One heads north to Caesarea where it splits – one heading east, one heading north past Ankara and on to Chalcedon, and one heading west to Ephesus on the Aegean Sea. Another red dashed arrow leaves Antioch and heads east toward Dara and then a bit northwest to Amida, and then is also shown heading back from Dara to Antioch. The last red dashed arrow heads south from Antioch past Apamea, Damascus, Caesarea (different from the one in the north), Jerusalem and then heads west to Alexandria.
Figure 11.8 This map shows most of the major conflict zones between the Byzantines and Sasanians during their wars of the sixth and seventh centuries. Think about how much time was spent in regular conflict and what life must have been like for noncombatants in places like Theodosiopolis, Dara, and Sergiopolis. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

Between 602 and 628, the Byzantines and Persians waged a devastating conflict that had long-lasting repercussions for the entire region. In the first phase, Khosrow and the Persians overwhelmed the Byzantines and claimed much of their eastern Mediterranean territory, including Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and crucially, the vital agricultural province of Egypt. Phocas, facing upheaval within his empire aside from the war with the Persians, was deposed and then executed in 610 by the newly declared emperor Heraclius. Desperate to claim back lost territory, return stability to the state, and rebuild the army to face the Persians, Heraclius was able to lead the Byzantines to victory and end the conflict in 628 (Figure 11.9).

An image of a plaque is shown. Across the top and bottom a blue stripe shows with a pattern of white fluted diamonds throughout. In the image, two figures are shown on a yellow background. The man on the left wears a green robe with a light blue cloak, both with gold trim. He has reddish brown hair, a beard, blue shoes and appears to be falling. The man on the right has a brown beard, large eyes, wears a white-spotted, blue robe and a green cloak, both with gold trim, a blue helmet and blue shoes. His right hand holds a long brown sword over his head and his left hand is pulling the hair of the other figure. A blue and red domed crown falls to the ground between the two men. Short green hills can be seen in the lower background and in the left corner the blue half of a semicircle displays a gold crescent moon and four stars of varying sizes. The letters “ERACLIVS REX” are etched in brown on the right above the second figure and the letters “COSDRE” are etched behind the cloak of the figure on the left.
Figure 11.9 This inlaid copper plaque is a twelfth-century depiction of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius (right) overcoming the Persian Sasanian Shahenshah Khosrow II (left) during the war between the two sides. Note the symbolism of the heroic warrior-ruler Heraclius knocking the crown from the head of his rival. Despite the short-lived victory of the Byzantines in the war, depictions of their success remained popular images throughout the Middle Ages. (credit: "Sassanid King Khosrau II submitting to the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius" by "Jastrow"/Louvre Museum/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Heraclius and the Byzantines did not go on to destroy the Sasanian dynasty, however. While Khosrow II was overthrown in a civil war at the end of the conflict, neither side was truly capable of continuing a long and costly fight against the other. The Byzantines were ultimately victorious, but the war was devastating for both sides politically, militarily, and economically. Despite his accomplishments, Heraclius had placed all his focus and state expenditures on the war itself rather than on truly governing the empire. Both sides had lost an enormous number of soldiers over more than fifteen years of conflict, and those who survived were war-weary and ready for retirement. Neither side had the money to rebuild the army or their defenses when they had put so much of the state’s resources toward victory—and survival.

With so much upheaval occurring despite the Byzantine victory, the war affected many aspects of society, including the state and nobility’s ability to patronize scholarship, historical writing, and the arts, leading this period to be known as the “Byzantine Dark Age” because of the severe lack of historical writing that survived in the seventh and eight centuries. Finally, the borders were constantly changing, and many civilians just attempting to live their lives were likely tossed between sides as the tides of war changed. More war would have taken an exhausting toll even on the people living in seemingly safe places like Jerusalem, Antioch, and Damascus.

As it was, the impacts of the conflict were far-reaching. The later Byzantine chronicler Theophanes wrote in the early ninth century about how the conflict had changed the relationship between the Byzantines and the Arabs in the year 630–631, including, almost certainly, tribes like the Ghassanids that had enjoyed special privileges and payments from the state. Theophanes wrote, “There were some nearby Arabs who received modest allowances from the emperors for guarding the desert pathways. A eunuch came to distribute to the soldiers’ allowances; but this time, when the Arabs came to receive theirs, as was their custom, the eunuch drove them away. ‘The ruler can hardly afford to pay his troops,’ he said, ‘much less give money to such dogs as these.’ The Arabs were outraged, went to their comrades, and showed them the route to the district of Gaza, the pathways toward Sinai, which were extremely rich.”

The timeline and circumstances of this long final conflict between the Byzantines and Sasanians, and the exhausted state in which both sides were left, were also significant for future events. While these great powers were distracted by the devastating war between them, their southern border was likely far from their rulers’ minds. Yet at the same time, the Arabs of western Arabia were being united for the first time in history, through the leadership of a man named Muhammad and the religion of Islam, with direct repercussions for the survival of the two ancient empires.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax