Pre-Islamic Arab

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PRE-ISLAMIC ARAB: Life Before The Holy Prophet


Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, outlines its origin to the Prophet Abraham (whom Muslims know as Ibrahim). He is said to have fathered two sons. The first was Isma'il, son of Hagar, an Egyptian slave whom Muslims regard as his wife. The second was Isaac, son of his wife Sarah. When Isaac was born, Abraham reportedly took Isma'il and Hagar to the desert valley of Mecca (Makkah) in a mountainous area of Arabia, presumably to spare them Sarah's jealousy.

The Arabs of the area were mostly nomadic cattle-breeders, shifting their herds through the desert in search of areas that had some greenery. Robbing caravans and settlements also helped them to sustain themselves, except during three months of the lunar year when raids were forbidden according to tribal religion. Drinking, gambling, and prostitution were apparently commonplace activities. There was no high civilization throughout the area. Mecca was situated along trade routes and was a trading center, but apparently it consisted only of simple palm-branch huts. (Bowersock 2003, 12-15)

The most powerful of the tribes there were the Quraysh, comprising approximately a dozen clans who lived as merchants. Nomadic tribal rules mandated that clan chiefs should take care of their weaker and poorer clan members, but this social rule was not necessarily followed by the merchant clans.

Because of their nomadic traveling, the Arabic tribes were in contact with each other and had a relatively uniform culture and a common language. They worshiped many deities and felt that people's lives were controlled by an impersonal force, called Fate or Time. Their tribal code of ethics held an entire clan responsible for its members' misdoings, and often took a life for a life. Long-lasting blood feuds were therefore common. But violence was prohibited within a large area surrounding the Ka'bah. Before Islam, the Ka'bah is thought to have contained 360 idols of Arabian tribal deities, perhaps including the Daughters of God and Hubal, one of the primary deities worshiped by the Quraysh. Statues of Jesus and Mary were also enshrined there. (Bury 2001, 45-50)

Known in antiquity as Arabia Felix, South Arabia was a fertile area with elaborate waterworks that supported the rise of a number of states in pre-Islamic times: Ma?in (the Minaeans), Saba (the land of Sheba), Qataban, and Hadhramaut. These later formed the ?imyari kingdom (capital, ?afar), which fell to the Abyssinians in 525. The Sabaeans were mentioned in the annals of Assyrian kings as far back as the eighth century BCE, and the peoples of Arabia Felix were known to classical writers as early as the end of the fourth century BCE. Strabo preserved an excerpt from Eratosthenes that mentions Minaeans, Sabaeans, Qatabanians, and Hadhramautis, and he himself gave an account of the expedition of Aelius Gallus into the area in 24 BCE. References to these peoples are also found in the anonymous Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (between c. 95 and 130 CE) and in the works ...
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