The Arabs were recognised as a distinct people (ie different from, say, Greeks or Persians), but there was no political, cultural, religious or even linguistic unity in the Arab lands, before the coming of Islam. Arabs lived in the Arabian peninsula, and lands to the north of it. Some were nomadic, others created settled kingdoms, and founded great cities, such as Palmyra, Damascus, Petra, Hatra. Often they were incorporated as allies or subjects into the larger empires that fought for control of the area, criss-crossed as it was by important north-south and east-west trade routes.
Early references: Herodotus
Herodotus has several references to Arabs (during the early Achaemenid period, when there existed briefly a satrapy called Arabaya, before 480 BC). Many of the details are fantastical, but he associates them accurately with the procuring of aromatics and spices - cassia, cinnamon, myrrh, and particulary frankincense - which in later times the Arabs supplied in huge quantities to the cities of Greece and the Roman empire. After cooperating with Cambyses in his conquest of Egypt, they became Persian allies - and contributed troops to Xerxes' invasion of Greece: cavalry mounted on camels. It's not quite certain, however, where exactly these Arabs had originated.
Three loosely defined areas of Arab settlement emerge from the literature, and are often referred to by their Roman names:
- roughly corresponds to modern Saudi Arabia, and was inhabited by a number of independent nomadic tribes, who frequently invaded the lands to the north (Mesopotamia) and south (Arabia Felix). The camel (domesticated from at least 3000 BC) was essential to their way of lfe. Almost nothing is known about these peoples, who left no records, architecture or monuments. Diodorus:
That part of Arabia as a whole which lies to the south is called Felix, but the interior part is ranged over by a multitude of Arabians who are nomads and have chosen a tent life. These raise great flocks of animals and make their camps in plains of immeasurable extent. The region which lies between this part and Arabia Felix is desert and waterless, as has been stated; and the parts of Arabia which lie to the west are broken by sandy deserts spacious as the air in magnitude, through which those who journey must, even as voyagers upon the seas, direct their course by indications obtained from the Bears.
This land also breeds camels in very great numbers and of most different kinds, both the hairless and the shaggy, and those which have two humps, one behind the other, along their spines and hence are called dituloi. Some of these provide milk and are eaten for meat, and so provide the inhabitants with a great abundance of this food, and others, which are trained to carry burdens on their backs, can carry some ten medimni of wheat and bear up five men lying outstretched upon a couch. Others which have short legs and are slender in build are dromedaries and can go at full stretch a day's journey of a very great distance, especially in the trips which they make through the waterless and desert region. And also in their wars the same animals carry into battle two bowmen who ride back to back to each other, one of them keeping off enemies who come on them from in front, the other those who pursue in the rear.Diodorus Siculus 2.54.1
Temple of Almaqah in Marib, Yemen. 6th-5th centuries BC. Photo AMW
- roughly where Yemen is today: it contained several kingdoms - rivals for the very lucrative trade in frankincense. For Sasanian intervention in South Arabia inthe 6th century AD see here. Diodorus again:
That part of Arabia which borders upon the waterless and desert country is so different from it that, because both of the multitude of fruits which grow therein and of its other good things, it has been called Arabia Felix. For the reed and the rush [ie ginger] and every other growth that has a spicy scent are produced in great abundance, as is also, speaking generally, every kind of fragrant substance which is derived from leaves, and the land is distinguished in its several parts by the varied odours of the gums which drip from them; for myrrh and that frankincense which is most dear to the gods and is exported throughout the entire inhabited world are produced in the farthest parts of this land.
And kostos and cassia and cinnamon and all other plants of this nature grow there in fields and thickets of such depth that what all other peoples sparingly place upon the altars of the gods is actually used by them as fuel under their pots, and what is found among all other peoples in small specimens there supplies material for the mattresses of the servants in their homes. Moreover, the cinnamon, as it is called, which is exceptionally useful, and resin of the pine, and the terebinth, are produced in these regions in great abundance and of sweet odour. And in the mountains grow not only silver fir and pine in abundance, but also cedar and the Phoenician cedar in abundance and boraton [juniper], as it is called. There are also many other kinds of fruit-bearing plants of sweet odour, which yield sap and fragrances most pleasing to such as approach them. Indeed the very earth itself is by its nature full of a vapour which is like sweet incense.Diodorus Siculus 2.49.1
Frankincense bush in Hadramawt, Yemen.
The resin hardens to form a crystal-like substance. Photo AMW
- meaning Arabia with its capital at Petra, (now in Jordan). These Arabs are the ones commonly mentioned by the Persians and Greeks, and who after Alexander's conquests, became vassals of the Seleucids then of the Romans and eventually of the Byzantines. They included the Nabataeans:
But now that we have examined these matters we shall turn our account to the other parts of Asia which have not yet been described, and more especially to Arabia. This land is situated between Syria and Egypt, and is divided among many peoples of diverse characteristics. Now the eastern parts are inhabited by Arabs, who bear the name of Nabataeans and range over a country which is partly desert and partly waterless, though a small section of it is fruitful. And they lead a life of brigandage, and overrunning a large part of the neighbouring territory they pillage it, being difficult to overcome in war. For in the waterless region, as it is called, they have dug wells at convenient intervals and have kept the knowledge of them hidden from the peoples of all other nations, and so they retreat in a body into this region out of danger. For since they themselves know about the places of hidden water and open them up, they have for their use drinking water in abundance; but such other peoples as pursue them, being in want of a watering-place by reason of their ignorance of the wells, in some cases perish because of the lack of water and in other cases regain their native land in safety only with difficulty and after suffering many ills. Diodorus Siculus 2.48.1
…The remaining part of Arabia, which lies towards Syria, contains a multitude of farmers and merchants of every kind, who by a seasonable exchange of merchandise make good the lack of certain wares in both countries by supplying useful things which they possess in abundance.Diod.2.54.1
Arab states with Persian involvement included:
The south-eastern coastal area of the Arabian peninsula, then known as Makran or Makan - and much of the Persian gulf coast - was under Persian rule from the time of the Achaemenids to the Islamic conquest, controlling the Straits of Hormuz. More on Oman here.
Mesopotamia and Syria
Cities and independent communities controlled by Arabs emerged at various times: they included
Characene (aka Mesene/Mesan)
A kingdom on the Persian Gulf at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates - roughly where Kuwait is now. It established its independence from the Seleucids around 127 BC, with its capital at Charax (hence "Characene"), a city founded by Alexander as the port for Babylon. It controlled sea traffic in and and out of the Persian Gulf, and was a major link for trade to India and the east. There was also an important land route across to Petra and Palmyra. The kings of Characene - probably of Persian origin - wavered in their allegiance between Parthia and Rome, according to which empire seemed to have the upper hand.
Silver tetradrachm of Hyspaosines, founder of independendent Characene, who was king from 209 to 124 BC
Characene remained independent after the Parthian conquests, but was brought back under Persian control by Ardashir in AD 222. According to al-Tabari, Charax was destroyed and rebuilt as Astarabad-Ardashir, but the precise location of the city is unknown.
Hatra (Arabic al-Hadr)
Ruins of Hatra, western Iraq
Possibly founded by the Seleucids, Hatra became an important Parthian city. Although its inhabitants were prodominantly Arabs, who were increasingly migrating northwards from the Arabian peninsula, it was famous for its cosmopolitanism: it contained temples to Greek, Mesopotamian, Canaanite, Aramaean and Arabic deities. It fought off the Romans (Trajan AD 116 and Septimius Severus AD 198) and later - for a time - the Sasanians, although it was captured by Shapur I in AD 241 and destroyed.
The first Arab-ruled kingdom in the region: it was established by Shapur II to replace Hatra, destroyed by Shapur I. The Lakhmid tribe of Arabs, whose capital it became, were clients and allies of the Sasanians - their importance increased when the Byzantines began to sponsor the Ghassanids further west to maintain their influence in the region. Hira was a largely Christian community. See below and also here.
Arabia between the Romans and Muhammad
Western Arabia had long provided a trade route between the Hadramawt, and Egypt and the Mediterranean. In the 2nd century AD, the Romans had garrisoned islands in the Red Sea to protect this trade. Trajan had included Hejaz - formerly controlled by the Nabataeans - in his province of Arabia.
To the south were several entities: the Kinda tribe in the interior (settlements show Greek influence); the Jewish community at Yathrib (later Medina), which may have been first settled by refugees from Titus' sack of Jerusalem; the Quraysh tribe which took over Mecca; the Christian community at Najran; Himyar at the southwest corner of the peninsula.Himyar (Yemen) was ruled in the 2nd century AD by the Ethiopian kingdom of Axum: after a century or so, around AD 270- for reasons unknown - they abandoned Arabia. The vacuum was eventually filled by Arab tribes who had converted to Judaism - at the same time as Axum converted to Christianity - but the Miaphysite variety, not the orthdox Byzantine version. Both of the big powers, Byzantium and the Sasanians took notice; the Byzantines sponsored the Ghassanid tribe (Jafnids) to look after their interests - while the Sasanians took the Lakhmids (Nasrids) to their east as their proxies.
The Jewish kingdom of Himyar began systematically persecuting Christians - causing the Ethiopians, who despite their absence had continued to claim Himyar as theirs, to intervene on their behalf - maybe just the excuse they'd been waiting for. In 523, the Himyar ruler Yusuf had carried out a brutal massacre of Christians in Najran. al-Tabari quotes one source:
He offered them a a choice between becoming Jews or death. They chose death, so a trench was dug for them. Some were burned, some slain violently with swords, and savagely mutilated until nearly 20,000 of them had been killed.al-Tabari V p 202 tr Bosworth
Encouraged by the Byzantine emperor, the Ethiopian negus, Kaleb, invaded Himyar and routed the kingdom of Yusuf. Himyar became Christian. Soon, under its ruler Abraha, it proclaimed independence from Kaleb. Abraha extended his empire to most of south and central Arabia (absorbing the Kinda). His Christianity was probably not the Ethiopian variety - his church in Sana'a was known as al-Qalis - derived from Greek ekklesia, which is probably why he got support from Justinian and the Byzantines.
Abraha attacked Mecca in 552. His invasion has often been connected with Qu'ran Sura 105, though there's no real evidence apart from the date:
Do you not see how the Lord dealt with the army of the Elephant? He sent an army of birds against them ₀
Presumably he wanted to ruin the Ka'ba in Mecca as a place of pilgrimage - just as according to al-Tabari, the pagan Arabs had tried to defile his church in Sana'a. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian kingdom was in decline, but Abraha's sons could not hold their father's empire together. The Sasanians intervened decisively at last, and reclaimed southern Arabia for Persia, in alliance with the Arabian Jews. The Persian grip on Arabia was weak, though - their clients, the Lakhmids, were also in decline. By the early 7th century, most of Arabia was a patchwork of small mutually aggressive princedoms.
Mecca, recently taken under the control of the Quraysh tribe was one among many. Like Rome, by luck of geography it was where north-south and east-west trade routes intersected. It had become a successful commercial centre, into which Muhammad was born in around AD 570. He was supposedly a trader during his early life; he later became one among many holy men preaching ideas gleaned from the inherited conglomerate of religious movements including elements from paganism, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Another of them, Musaylima, in a letter (possibly authentic) proposed carving up the territory between the two of them! Muhammad's reply was scathing.
Muhammad began having visions of visitations from the angel Gabriel (Jibril) in the desert outside Mecca at around the age of forty, in about AD 610. His status in Mecca was assured - because of his older wife Khadija, with her commercial connections, and his uncle Abu Talib. He had many early supporters, but enemies too among the non-believers. Muhammad and some of his followers took refuge with the Christian king of Ethiopia around AD 615. Its unclear whether this had any connection with the capture of Christian Jerusalem by the Persians, to the benefit of the Jews, in 614: Arabia was still under the rule of the Sasanians, and their Jewish clients. In 619, he was back in Mecca, but his position weakened after the deaths of his wife and uncle.
In 622, he left again for Yathrib, 300 miles to the north - invited there to settle local quarrels among the inhabitants, many of who were Jews. This migration is known as the hijra - and marks the beginning of the Muslim era. In Yathrib (Medina) Muhammad became the acknowledged leader, through his skill in settling disputes and promoting peace and friendship - and apart from the Jews most of the population were converted into believers. Muhammad led his Muslims to several battles with his Quraysh enemies in Mecca - the Battle of Badr in 623 (Muslim victory), the Battle of Uhud in 625 (Quraysh victory) and and the Battle of the Trench in 627 (Muslim victory). Muhammad won the people of Mecca over: he turned the Ka'ba from a pagan into a Muslim sanctuary. His forces, his ideas and his personality began to bring unity to the entire peninsula, under Arab command - the Sasanians were driven out.
Carnage at the Battle of Uhud AD 625. Meccans triumph under veteran Khalid Walid.