Pre Islamic Arab Culture

In the history of the world, no cultural or linguistic group looms larger than Semitic peoples. Originating from the Arabian peninsula, the Semitic people are responsible for teh first civilizations, three major world relgions, and a set of cultural practices that have been more globalized or universalized than any other peoples, including the Chinese and Europeans.

   Semitic people erupt on the world stage three times: with the growth of Semitic civilizations in Mesopotamia four thousand years ago, the spread of Christianity and Judaism two thousand years ago, and finally, the explosion of Islam fifteen hundred years ago—this last eruption of Semitic culture would produce the major world religion and social system of the modern period.

The Land    All Semitic people have their beginnings in the Arabian peninsula; but the great Semitic cultures and civilizations of the early period belong to emigrants, all those who left the Arabian peninsula for Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Africa. It is a great irony of history, then, that the most influential of Semitic cultures would not come from an emigrant people, but from Semites living in the very heart of their origin place.

   The Arabian peninsula is probably the last place one would nominate as a cradle of the most influential of human cultures, for it is a harsh and demanding place to live. As a land mass, it is separated from its parent continent, Africa, and from Asia by the Red Sea in the west and the Persian Gulf in the east. Although it is surrounded on three sides by water, there are no good harbors, save for Aden, and both the Red Sea and Persian Gulf can be treacherous. The overwhelming geographical aspect of the Arabian peninsula is water, or rather the lack of water.

   The Arabian peninsula can be divided into two distinct climactic and geographical zones. In the south is an area along the coast of the Arabian Sea that gets regular rain and has an astonishing variety of plant life. This is the Arabia of our mythology, the Arabia of wealth, tropical plants, cities, frankincense and myrrh. From a very early period, the south of Arabia was heavily populated by sedentary populations living in cities and relying on agriculture. Many of these civilizations were very wealthy and powerful, and Semitic peoples in Africa largely owe their origin to these privileged southerners.

   Northern Arabia—that is, all of Arabia north of the southern coast, is one of the most inhospitable places on earth. To the east is a vast desert—one of the largest continuous areas of sand in the world—bordered by arid steppes in the west. The western portion of northern Arabia consists of mountains and steppes. Across this vast land, there are no rivers to connect peoples together. While the people in the south have historically lived close together and in constant contact, the people in the north live far apart and in relative isolation.

The most forbidding part of northern Arabia is the expanse of sand desert on the eastern side. There is little or no precipitation and so no support for agriculture—the only substantial flora in eastern Arabia is the date palm, a plant magnificently adapted to an arid climate. This area throughout almost all of human history has been inhabited by nomadic, pastoralist Arabs called Bedouins who lived in small, tightly-knit tribal groups. The western coast is slightly less forbidding and the Arabs that settled there lived in sedentary and larger tribal groups.

These two regions, the south and the north, were homes to two entirely separate Semitic peoples: the Sabaeans in the south and the Arabs in the north.

The Sabaeans    Also called the Himyarites or the Yemenites, the Sabaeans had from a very early period adopted a sedentary way of life in the relatively lush climate of southern Arabia. Eventually, the south came under the control of city-states ruled by priest-kings called mukkarib whose functions may have been very similar to the earliest kings of Sumer and Akkad. By the first millenium AD, however, these priest-kings had largely given way to a secular monarchy, the malik.

   The four most powerful city-states of the south were Saba' (whence the name, Sabaeans), Hadramawt, Qataban, and Ma'in, all located in the southwest of the Arabian peninsula, the area with the heaviest rainfall in all of Arabia. Although the south never formed a political or ethnic unity, the most powerful of all these city-states was Saba', which slowly expanded its political influence to include all the major kingdoms of the south by 300 AD.

   For much of its history, the area around Saba', Hadramawt, Qataban, and Ma'in was a center of incredible wealth legendary all throughout the Fertile Crescent and northern Africa. It was an area of exotic plants, spices and luxury items that gained high prices in commerce all throughout the Mediterranean and Asia. Its most lucrative export was frankincense, which in ancient times grew only in Hadramawt and in the Sabaean colony of Somalia in Africa.

   The Sabaeans, however, lived on two major two trade routes: one was the ocean-trading route between Africa and India. The harbors of the southwest were centers of commerce with these two continents and the luxury items, such as spices, imported from these countries. But the Sabaean region also lay at the southern terminus of land-based trade routes up and down the coast of the Arabian peninsula. Goods would travel down this land-route to be exported to Africa or India and goods from Africa and India would travel north on this land-route.

   This latter trade route had tremendous consequences for the Arabs in the north and the subsequent history of Islam. For all along this trade route grew major trading cities and the wealth of the south filtered north into these cities. It was in one such Arabian city, Mecca, that Islam would begin.

   However, by the seventh century AD, the south had fallen into political disarray. While it had been isolated from invasion by both the ocean and a forbidding wall of moutains, it came to the interest of several competing forces, both political and cultural. The region underwent pressures by Judaizing and Christianizing forces and would finally be invaded in 520 AD by the Christian state of Ethiopia. It was into this wealthy but politically anarchic area that Islam would spread from the north a century later.

The Arabs    The Arabs of the north were ethnically one people but were composed of two culturally opposite groups: nomadic and sedentary Arabs. The harshness of the environment forced on Arabs a nomadic, tribal existence. Agriculture was out of the question; instead, the nomadic Arabs, called Bedouins, were pastoralists and moved their herds from place to place in search of scarce resources and water. They lived in small, tightly-knit hereditary tribes.

   Sedentary Arabs were themselves Bedouin who had settled the oases that surround the periphery of the Arabian desert—many of these settlements were very recent. Because the oases represented a concentration of scarce resources, the control of these areas were the result of military campaigns and this control was regularly threatened.

   Since the oases were both at the periphery of Bedouin migrations and represented scarce resources, the Bedouin were unable to seize possession of these areas until more powerful political rivals, such as Mesopotamia and the Sabaeans, had become weaker or more diffuse. It really was not until the first millenium BC that the many of the major sedentary Arab settlements were established. So by the time of Islam, the culture of sedentary Arabs was still very close to that of their nomadic cousins.

   The settlements also lay on the trade route that connected Africa and India with the Mediterranean world through southern Arabia. The power and prosperity of the sedentary Arabs largely derived from their position as intermediaries in this trade.

   There are three distinct hisorical periods for pre-Islamic sedentary Arabs. The first period begins with the decline of the Greek Seleucids in the Middle East and the decline in power of the southern Sabaeans; the Arabs penetrate as far north as Petra and as far south as Najran, taking advantage of the military vacuum in both these areas. As the Arabs begin to approach the Mediterranean iself, they run into Rome going in the opposite direction.

   The expansion of Roman, and then Byzantine, and then Sabaean power begins the second period of pre-Islamic Arabia: the period of client-states. During this period, Arab cities found themselves as client and tributary states to three major world powers: the Byzantine empire in the north, the Persians in the east, and the southern Arabic kingdom of Himyar (the Sabaeans). During this period, both Christianity and Judaism spread rapidly among the Arabs. Some cities, such as Yathrib, become Judaized cities while a large number become Christian—either Monophysite Christianity of Africa and Syria or the eastern Christianity of Byzantium. No matter what its origin, however, the Arabs experienced Christianity as a Semitic religion. Still, even among non-Christian and non-Judaized Arabs, both Judaism and Christianity had very fully penetrated Arabic culture by the beginning of the third period of pre-Islamic history.

   The third period was concentrated in inner Arabia, particularly the city of Mecca. This was the period of the efflorescence of Bedouin culture and military power. The Bedouins not only became a military power in their own right, they also closely allied themselves with the central Arabian cities, such as Yathrib and Mecca. This was the period when classical Arabic, or al-Arabiyya, became the language of Arabic culture and poetry. This period saw the diffusion of Bedouin values, such as the value of muru'a, or manliness, and the widespread diffusion of Bedouin narratives and poetry.

   The most important of these Bedouin achievements, however, was the conquest of Mecca by the tribe of the Quraysh around 500 AD. Mecca had already become a religious center of Arabic culture as its name suggests—one possible derivation of the name, "Mecca," is the word, "makorba," or "temple." The religion of the pre-Islamic Arabs was a mixture of Bedouin polytheism, Judaism, and a little bit of Christianity. The pre-Islamic Arabs worshipped three goddesses, al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat, who were all daughters of one god, Allah—this one god was probably derived from the monotheistic religions of Judaism and Christianity. Mecca was the center of this religion with its Ka'ba, or "Cube," which served as the temple for the religion.

   This third period, however, would end dramatically with the reassertion of Semitic power and culture over the area of western Asia and Mesopotamia. This last period of Semitic history would be its greatest and turn it into what is perhaps the most significant culture of human history. It is a historical shift that can be dated and placed with extreme precision—for this last stage in Arabic history begins with one person: Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah.
Richard Hooker

©1996, Richard Hooker

For information contact:
Richard Hines
Updated 6-6-1999