Islam – Prehistory, Myths & Present (III)

History Pre – Islam

The Achaemenid empire at its greatest extent, ...
The Achaemenid empire at its greatest extent, including the satrap of ancient Maka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Muslim notion that the Arabs were originally monotheists during Abraham’s time and had later degenerated into polythesitic paganism is more a propagated untruth than a fact. That Kaaba was the ordained house of God of Abraham’s religion has no historical or archaelogical basis. Rather, the patriarchs may have worshipped El at stone bethels just as the pre-Islamic Arabians did at theirs.

Let us obtain an overview of pre-islamic history in north arabia, in order to dispel this deliberately broadcast Islamic impression that the new religion was totally “different”, as if its vision and tenets grew in a vacuum.The pre-historic to Iron Age period saw several civilisations, starting with the Ubaid culture, 5300-4000 BCE, in which people lived in large village settlements, with multi-roomed rectangular mud-brick houses. The first temples of public architecture in Mesopotamia appeared during this period, as also the first movement towards urbanisation. According to Prof. Susan Pollock, “Agriculture and domesticated animal husbandry was widely practiced in sedentary communities.” 

The Nabatean tombs at Mada’in Saleh were carved by the Thamud civilisation, which comprised either a tribe or a group of tribes that created a large kingdom and flourished from 3000 to 200 BCE. Recent archaeological work has revealed numerous Thamudic rock writings and pictures not only in Yemen but also throughout central Arabia. They are mentioned in sources such as the Qur’an, old Arabian poetry, Assyrian annals (Tamudi), in a Greek temple inscription from the northwest Hejaz of 169 CE, in a 5th-century Byzantine source and in Old North Arabian graffiti around Tayma.

The Umm an-Nar culture, 2600–2000 BCE, have left behind circular tombs with well fitted stones in the outer wall and multiple human remains within. Magan is attested as the name of a trading partner of the Sumerians. It is often assumed to have been located in Oman. The A’adids established themselves in South Arabia, modern-day Yemen, settling to the east of the Qahtan tribe. They established the Kingdom of ʿĀd from the 10th century BCE to the 3rd century CE. The ʿĀd nation were known to the Greeks and Egyptians. Claudius Ptolemy’s Geographos (2nd century CE) refers to the place by a Hellenised version of the inhabitants of the capital Ubar.

The Qedarites, of Kingdom of Qedar (8th century BCE – 2nd century CE) were a largely nomadic, ancient Arab tribal confederation. Described as “the most organised of the Northern Arabian tribes”, at the peak of its power in the 6th century BC it controlled a large region between the Persian Gulf and the Sinai Peninsula. It is unclear when the Qedarites ceased to exist as a separately defined confederation or people. Allies with the Nabataeans, it is likely that they were subsumed into the Nabataean state around the 2nd century AD.

Biblical tradition holds that the Qedarites are named for Qedar, the second son of Ishmael, mentioned in the Bible’s books of Genesis (25:13) and Chronicles (1:29), where there are also frequent references to Qedar as a tribe. The earliest extra-biblical inscriptions discovered by archaeologists that mention the Qedarites are from the Neo-Assyrian Empire. There are also Aramaic and Old South Arabian inscriptions recalling the Qedarites, who further appear briefly in the writings of Classical Greek and Roman historians, such as Herodotus, Pliny the Elder, and Diodorus.

Achaemenid Arabia corresponded to the lands between Egypt and Mesopotamia, later known as Arabia Petraea. According to Herodotus, king Cambyses II of the Achaemenid Empire did not subdue the Arabs when he attacked Egypt in 525 BCE. His successor, Darius the Great, does not mention the Arabs in the Behistun Inscription from the first years of his reign, but mentions them in later texts. This suggests that Darius conquered this part of Arabia.

Interestingly, Arabs were not considered as subjects to the Achaemenids as other peoples were, and were exempt from taxation. Instead, they simply provided 1000 talents of frankincense a year. They also helped the Achaemenids invade Egypt by providing water skins to the troops crossing the desert.

Meanwhile Nabataeans, the ancient people of North Arabia, whose oasis settlements in 37 – c. 100 CE gave the name of Nabatene to the borderland between Arabia and Syria, were spread over the land between the Euphrates and the Red Sea. Their loosely-controlled trading network was centered on strings of oases and the routes that linked them, which they controlled, where agriculture was intensively practiced. They did not have secure and defined boundaries in the surrounding desert. Roman Emperor Trajan conquered the Nabataean kingdom and created the province of Arabia Petraea. But the Nabateans could be easily identified by their distinct culture, especially their characteristic finely-made painted ceramics. Eventually, however, they were dispersed in the general Greco-Roman realm and were gradually absorbed within it.

There is evidence of Roman intervention in northern Arabia dating to the reign of Caesar Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE). During the reign of Tiberius (14–37 CE), the already wealthy and elegant north Arabian city of Palmyra, located along the caravan routes linking Persia with the Mediterranean ports of Roman Syria and Phoenicia, was made part of the Roman province of Syria. The area steadily grew further in importance as a trade route linking Persia, India, China, and the Roman Empire. During the following period of great prosperity, the Arab citizens of Palmyra adopted customs and modes of dress from both the Iranian Parthian world to the east and the Graeco-Roman in the west. In 129 AD, Hadrian visited the city and was so enthralled by it that he proclaimed it a free city and renamed it Palmyra Hadriana.

Remember that the Roman province of Arabia Petraea was created at the beginning of the 2nd century by emperor Trajan. It was centered on Petra but included areas of northern Arabia, then under Nabatean control. Evidence has recently been discovered pointing to Roman legions having occupied Mada’in Saleh in the Hijaz mountains area of northwestern Arabia. The desert frontier of Arabia Petraea was called Limes Arabicus. As a frontier province, it included a desert area of northeastern Arabia populated by the nomadic Saraceni.

In the 6th century CE, Arabia Petraea was a border province between the Roman and Persian empires, and from the early centuries CE was increasingly affected by South Arabian Qahtanite influence, notably with the Ghassanids, Lakhmids and Kindites migrating north from the 3rd century. This was the last major migration of non-Muslims out of Yemen to the north and southwestern borders.

Greeks and Romans referred to all the nomadic population of the desert in the Near East as Arabi. The Greeks called Yemen “Arabia Felix” (Happy Arabia). The Romans called the vassal nomadic states within the Roman Empire “Arabia Petraea” and referred to the unconquered deserts, bordering the empire to the south and east, as Arabia Magna (Larger Arabia).

The Bedouin tribes consisted of major clans within tribes that were nomadic and patriarchal. The lineage followed through males, since the tribes were named after their males ancestors. Thus, much of the information available relating to the early lineages of the predominantly desert-dwelling Bedouin Arabs is based on biblical genealogy. The different Bedouin tribes throughout Arabian history are regarded as having emerged from two main branches: the Rabi`ah, from which amongst others the Banu Hanifa emerged, and the Mudhar, from which amongst others the Banu Kinanah (and later Muhammad’s own tribe, the Quraysh) emerged.

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