Nihal Şahin Utku, PhD Life of Muhammad Arabia in the Pre-Islamic Period To understand the religion that Prophet Muhammad conveyed and the effects that this religion had on society, it is necessary to understand in part the ethnic, geographic, social, cultural,...

Arabia in the Pre-Islamic PeriodNihal Şahin Utku, PhD


To understand the religion that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) conveyed and the effects that this religion had on society it is necessary to understand in part the ethnic, geographic, social, cultural, economic and religious features of the environment in which Prophet Muhammad lived. Revealing this process, which directly affected the existence of Islamic society, will not only help us to understand the position of Prophet Muhammad in the society in which he lived for 40 years before his prophethood, but also will provide an opportunity to learn to what extent that society changed and transformed with the conveyance of Islam. The period before the revelations, which has always been recognized by Muslims throughout history as “The Age of Ignorance”, constitutes a section in all the Islamic books before the siyar (the life-history of the Prophet) and is regarded as an indispensable element of Islamic history.


The Arabian Peninsula is surrounded by the Persian Gulf to the east, the Red Sea to the west, and the Indian Ocean to the south. It is one of the hottest and driest regions in the world.





The term “Arabia” that is used in the ancient Latin and Greek sources covers a region from the east coast of the River Nile to the Sinai Peninsula in the north and Syria. Today, the term “Arabian Peninsula” refers to a more restricted area and consists of an area of 3.1 million km2 with a coastline of 9,000 km.

The rainfall in this region is approximately less than 150 millimeters, which causes the existence of a desert climate. Arabia resembles a large rectangle stretching between the Asian continent and the African continent. Arabia was separated from India and Iran 130 or 200 million years ago and from Africa 65 million years ago. The west and east coast of the Red Sea, which are like two halves of a cloth torn down the middle, give us fairly important clues about the formation and the course of the process of separation.

In terms of geographical structure and climatic conditions the Arabian Peninsula, called Jaziratu al-Arab by the Arabs, is divided into several regions. Although the number and borders of these regions have been much debated in history, three regions have come to the fore: Yemen, which includes the southwest of the Peninsula, the Hejaz, which is composed of the western regions, and the Najd, which includes the interior and the eastern coast. The Hejaz has been researched to a greater extent by geographers due to the fact that Islam emerged there. Yemen is important as it is the main production and trade center of the Arabian Peninsula.

Throughout history, the peninsula has been negatively influenced by the temperature, especially the great heat in the summer. It is also seriously affected by the seasons and by sudden temperature changes between night and day. The temperature increases as one goes from the north to the south and from the high plateaus to low areas; occasionally this temperature can reach 50°C. The cold of winter makes itself partially felt in the north and along the coasts of the Persian Gulf, yet it is almost never felt along the Red Sea coasts where the temperature rarely falls below 15°C. Although the rain that falls from February to March or from May to September partially reduces the suffocating effect of the hot and arid climate characteristic of the peninsula, nevertheless it can not prevent temperatures reaching 40°C in the daytime and 30°C at night along the coasts. In particular, such high temperatures along with an increase in humidity along the coasts make daily life considerably difficult. However, the same conditions form an appropriate environment for agriculture of high quality within certain regions. For instance, in Yemen, the winter temperature in Tihama, which lies in the southern parts of the Tihama region, located between the mountain ranges along the west coast of the peninsula and the Red Sea, is between 25° and 35°C and the humid fog that stretches over the mountains in the morning enables the growth of valuable agricultural products such as coffee.

The rocky and craggy mountains that cover the western regions of Arabia are intersected by valleys that were formed by floods. Residential areas were established in the surrounding areas of these valleys, which were relatively more productive. However, heavy rains that are short in duration have led to the soil being sandy and not water-retentive.  For this reason, most of these residential areas have remained as temporary settlements where nomadic Arabs would come and stay for a time. At the same time, techniques and measures were developed that enabled Yemen to utilize the waters in the valley that lay deep in the ground, and thus these valleys were transformed into areas appropriate for residential areas.

Settlement was most established in the Ahsa regions; this is an Arabic word used for ground which is made up of hard rocks and covered with sand. When it rains, this hard layer plays a role in preventing the waters from reaching the depths and enables the utilization of water by people; this factor plays an important role in the preference of such areas.

The soil and rain traits limit the permanent agriculture areas available on the peninsula. In the southwestern, southern and southeastern parts of the Arabian Peninsula, where the rain falls in the form of summer rains (monsoons), the valleys are filled by sudden and short rain storms in which the water quickly evaporates, due to the hot weather, even before it has reached the lower levels of the soil; thus the river valleys remain mostly arid. Combined with a soil that is extremely permeable and does not retain water, the underground water resources are diminished and thus field agriculture based on natural irrigation is limited only to the southwestern regions. The above-mentioned weather conditions also determine the vegetation of the peninsula, only allowing the growth of such plants as trees, bushes, short bushes and shrubs that have long life spans and which are hardy in the arid climate. The plants which only grow during the rainy season and which have short life spans are also part of the flora of the region. In the Rub’ul-hali, which is the largest and harshest desert in the southeastern area, almost no vegetation that can reach the underground water resources exist. These factors underline the inhospitable natural conditions that pervade throughout the peninsula, all of which are caused by the lack of water resources in area. This is the main reason why there is a gap between the southeastern region, which has fertile and productive soil because of its extensive rainfall and the deserts in the rest of the peninsula, which tend to be infertile. The permanent water resources in parts other than the south of the peninsula consist only of underground water which is sparsely located throughout the valleys. The wells which have been dug in the valley are constantly closed up by sand storms, while the standing water that accumulates after the rain storms in the valleys evaporates quickly.

This difference between the regions, as far as vegetation is concerned, can also be observed in the regional produce. In the inner regions, date trees thrive in the arid climate, and being hardy with little need of water, dominate, whereas Yemen is renowned for the sweet-gum (liquidambar styrax), which is a symbol of productivity and luxury. Dates are the main food source for people in the oases. There are a few areas where wheat, barley, millet, onions, sesame, various vegetables, tobacco, apricots, almonds, grapes and citrus fruits can be grown. In the southern regions it is possible to grow such a variety of crops as bananas, cotton, coffee and even rice and sugar cane.

The harshness of the climate throughout the peninsula also affects the surrounding seas. The climate and structure of both the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf are of a quality that prevents development in the regions adjacent to these seas. These two seas, with their coral reefs, adverse currents and winds make regional maritime activities considerably difficult. The coasts of the Arabian Peninsula make the situation any easier. The coast lines, particularly the southern coast line, are not suitable for the construction of ports. The port cities that are open to the sea do not have a road transportation network or an agricultural hinterland to support the development of trade in these cities or to feed the cities. In this context, the only exception seems to be Aden.

Despite all these negative aspects, the region has accommodated an urban population that makes an income from trade and agriculture as well as a nomadic population involved in animal husbandry. The nomadic Bedouins also made a living by protecting the caravans and guiding them or by attacking these same caravans to loot their goods. Trade, shipping, fishery, and pearl and sponge hunting were relatively important along the coasts.

To sum up, in such a harsh region where the sea, the climate and the geography are all disadvantageous for the region, long-term settlements generally proved to be inappropriate. Over time, places of settlement, such as Jeddah began to form, whereas other cities, such as Djar, a port of Medina, were erased off the map.

It is assumed that during the period when Shuayba was the port of Mecca that it was a small fishing village consisting of cottages at which the trade ships rarely loaded or unloaded. Jeddah became a prestigious port and gained importance only after the Uthman designated it as the port of Mecca in place of Shuayba. During this period the city developed partly because it was the port of Mecca and partly because of its strategic location for the defense of the Hejaz; Jeddah was transformed into a garrison city and its position was fortified. Jeddah not only benefited from the trade of Mecca, which city it served as a port, but it was also the focal point of the Islamic world, turning  it into a huge import center where goods coming from Egypt and India arrived. Over time, Jeddah acquired religious, financial and strategic importance, becoming the most active and important port in the Red Sea and the Arabian Peninsula. With its importance in terms of trade activities it managed to become one of the few trade centers during the Middle Ages. Moreover, with time, and particularly when the Crusaders threatened the security on the northern roadways, Jeddah became an important meeting and transition point for pilgrimage groups coming from the Red Sea.{mospagebreak title=RELIGIOUS CONDITIONS IN PRE-ISLAMIC ARABIAN SOCIETY}


The information available about the pre-Islamic religions of the Arabs is primarily based on Arabic scriptures and archeological data. However, the materials within these documents, rather than providing explanations for basic religious issues, such as faith principles, worship and prayers, present information only about the names of the gods and the idols. In addition to the scriptures and archeological works concerned with pre-Islamic Arabian religions, it is also possible to make use of Assyrian, Hebrew, Greek and Latin sources, as well as the poetry from the Age of Ignorance and proverbs which provide direct information about pre-Islamic Arabian society. Other than these varied, but limited sources, there is reliable and detailed information related to the religions of the polytheist Arabs in the Quran, and Quranic studies, such as tafsir, hadith, siyar and in Islamic historical sources. In particular, those which are concerned with the time right before the advent of Islam and the first period after this are particularly helpful.


ImageAlthough, different faiths, such as Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Sabi and Hanafiyyah were common among the Arabs before the advent of Islam, the most common religious belief was no doubt a form of paganism. In particular, the creed of the Bedouins was dominant, and it represented the oldest and primary form of Semitic belief. There are some claims suggesting that the adoption of idolatry by the Arabs in fact took place in later periods, and that to begin with the Arabs did not deny the presence of one Creator, but that with time they acquired idols which they used as mediators, thinking that this was the only way to reach God; it is also stated that the Arabs adopted idols from foreign elements. This claim is based on the thesis that the people of Mecca were introduced to monotheistic belief after the construction of the Kaaba by Prophet Abraham. It is thought that when the descendants of Abraham and his son Ishmael were leaving the city of Mecca, as their needs could not be met there, they took along them small stones which they had removed from Kaaba; they revered these stones which they considered sacred, and in this way departed from the original monotheistic faith.

The reverence shown to these stones became a form of worship in the third century, when Mecca and the Kaaba fell under the control of the Khuzaa tribe. According to one account, Amr ibn Luhay, one of the leaders of this tribe, took an idol named Hubal from Damascus when he went there for purposes of trade, bringing the idol to Mecca, where he erected it in the courtyard of Kaaba, and invited people to worship it. This act was the beginning of idolatry in the peninsula; it quickly spread and became the dominant belief of the people in the region. The number of idols brought to the Kaaba increased day by day, until there were finally a great number; every tribe, every family even, had their own idols. It is known that the number of idols in the Kaaba reached 360 just before the advent of Islam. The most famous of these idols in the Hejaz were Hubal, Isaf, Naila, Wadd and the three goddesses Lat, Manah and Ozza, who were known as “Allah’s daughters”. Hubal was the first idol brought to the Kaaba and it was the most respected idol. Hubal was made of red agate and had a human form. It was accepted as a god by all the Arabian tribes. While being transferred from Syria, Hubal’s hand was broken, and it was replaced with a golden hand by the Quraishi polytheists. As for the god Isaf of Safa and Naila of Marwa, they were representative of two people having sexual intercourse in the Kaaba. Wadd was the idol of the Khuzaa tribe; this was a statue of a colossal man. Lat was one of the oldest idols of the Arabs and was regarded as a goddess who represented the sun. In what remnants can be found of statues of Lat, she was depicted sometimes as a part of the sun, sometimes as a naked woman, and sometimes as a horse. Ozza was not only worshipped in the Hejaz, but also in regions like Iraq, Damascus, Nabat and Safa. Ozza was one of the largest idols of the Quraishis. As for Manah, she was the goddess of faith who had a temple at the seaside, and was glorified by many tribes other than the Quraishis. She was one of the most notable goddesses, especially in the Hejaz region. Although the number of idols and the importance attributed to them varied in the Kaaba, these idols were respected by all tribes.

Although the Arabs in the Age of Ignorance basically worshipped idols, they also accepted the existence of a superior God called “Allah”, who they saw as the creator. As a matter of fact, there were people who adopted Hanafiyyah, the religion of Abraham in the region; this fact is seen as evidence that monotheism was not an unknown concept in the Arabian Peninsula at the time. It is interesting that this belief, which was known to have existed in the years after the birth of Jesus, particularly in southern Arabia, and which probably came to Mecca via trade activities, found a place also in the poems of the Age of Ignorance. It is particularly interesting that the word “rahman”, used in the poetry of the Age of Ignorance to define Allah, had no plural form and was considered to denote a single God.

As stated in the Holy Quran (Al-Zumar, 39/13), the polytheist Arabs worshipped idols so that they could come closer to Allah. They knew that Allah, who waters the earth, causes the crops to grow, and provides the flocks commanded by humans, is “the Creator of all things”, “the Lord of the earth”, “Owner of the heavens and the earth”. They would pray to Allah in tumultuous times and swear grave oaths in the His name. They even allocated some portion of their crops to Allah. They prayed to Him in dangerous situations, but they forgot Him when situation passed. They sacrificed animals in the name of idols, but they also worshipped Allah. All these examples show that the Arabs’ faith in Allah was very ambiguous and there was a conflict in faith. Although the idols were seen as mediators on a conscious level, they were concerned in all parts of daily life and were the dominant objects of worship.

The words sanam and wathan were the most frequent words used by the Arabs in the Age of Ignorance for their idols. Sanam was used to mean “statue” and it refers to “a thing worshipped other than Allah”. The word nasb, which means “obelisk”, was used for idols made of stone.

As a natural result of idolatry it became important in Arabia to have an idol or a temple. In Arabia before the advent of Islam stones were erected in front of the Kaaba or temples. The places where people worshipped in groups had many idols and religious ceremonies were carried out in the form of circumambulation. These temples were greatly respected by the Arabs. Although they were usually called bayt, the temples in the shape of cubes were called kaaba. The Temple of Riyam in the San’a region of Yemen was among the most famous temples in the Age of Ignorance.

In this pre-Islamic Arabic faith, the main purpose of worship was to accomplish a number of worldly aims. Worship was performed in the form of prayers, sajda (bowing down) and circumambulation of the temples, the sacrificing of animals and giving of charitable alms. In their prayers, people usually asked for health, wealth, victory and children. They requested help and forgiveness from the idols so that their prayers would be accepted. In this pagan belief, where the main purpose was to achieve worldly pleasures, although there was no obvert belief in an afterlife there was ambiguity. The dead were buried with goods like food and clothing, and animals were left to die near a grave in the belief that the dead would use these animals on the Day of Judgment. This demonstrates that there was a subconscious belief in the afterlife.

The most important place in this pre-Islamic belief was without a doubt the Kaaba and its surroundings. As a matter of fact, it is known that pilgrimage to the Kaaba was the most common and the regular form of worship during the Age of Ignorance. In the pilgrimage season, during which fighting was prohibited and conflicts among the tribes came to a halt, every tribe would circumambulate the Kaaba. They would stop in front of their own idols, bow with respect and utter a prayer. To symbolize purification from sins, the circumambulation was generally performed naked. Although the circumambulation constituted the basis of the pilgrimage, the pilgrimage also included visits to other temples in the region where other idols were located. No living creatures would be killed in the temples, which were believed to have the traces of God’s existence and which, accordingly, were considered to be sacred. For that reason, such places were ideal shelters for people who were victimized by tribes and who feared for their lives. The Arabs at this time would give various presents, including perfume, to the gods in the temples, and they would make offerings and sacrifice animals for them. It is also known that the Arabs fasted like the Jews and Christians, and circumcised their sons. Although it is known that there were practices like ghusul (total ablution of the body), washing the dead and wrapping them in shrouds, it is not known how common these acts were.

The polytheist Arabs would ask for help from the idols in order to accomplish important issues; they sought solutions to their problems by using divining arrows and they would make such actions religious duties. They would make prophecies based on the flight of birds or the direction taken by animals; they would use amulets and talismans to protect themselves from the evil eye. The polytheist Arabs would make offerings for the dead who were buried with their belongings  and they erected statues or stones by their tombs.


Before the birth of Islam the Hanifs were notable for their resistance to the Quraishi paganism and the distance they maintained from the People of the Book, the Christians and Jews. They played a preparatory role in the spread of monotheistic belief throughout the peninsula and in the emergence of Islam. Despite not having great numbers, and leading solitary and separate lives, which was representative of their fear of God, the Hanifs succeeded in becoming prominent components of the Age of Ignorance, both with their simple life style and the virtues they represented, racially, intellectually and culturally. This community is praised in the Holy Qur’an (Al-Hajj, 22/30-1). They played a great role in the spreading of the religion propounded by Abraham, which they said was based on monotheistic belief.



Judaism was one of the two Abrahamic religions in pre-Islamic Arabian society. It can be seen that Judaism was not very prevalent outside the regions of Yemen and Yathrib. Judaism began to be prevalent in these regions when the Hejaz became an important immigration area for the Jews after the invasion of Jerusalem in the 6th century B.C. The tension between the Jews who settled in the regions of Medina, Khaybar, Fadaq, Tayma, and Wadi al-Qura and the Yemeni tribes of Aws and Khazraj, who immigrated to the same regions in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, prevented Judaism from having a significant effect on the Arabs of the region. Although Judaism found a way to spread with the influence of Jewish merchants, as well as the fact that the Himyari ruler, Zu Nuvas of Yemen, was Jewish, the religion did not find much of a following among the Arabs. This was because Judaism was regarded as a religion based on race, with the Jews considering themselves to be superior to the followers of other religions; in addition, the Jewish laws were not appropriate for the Bedouin life style.



Although, as seen above, Judaism had a limited effect on pre-Islamic Arabian society, Christianity played a much greater role. Christianity started to prevail in the Arabian Peninsula from the 4th century on, from Syria in the north to Abyssinia/Ethiopia in the south. Christians from Syria were composed of dissident groups who could not be accommodated in the Byzantine lands, due to sectarian conflicts within the eastern church. These people were effective among the Ghassani and Hira Arabs in northern Arabia, causing the Christianization of many Arab tribes.

The spreading of Christianity in eastern Arabia occurred with the Abyssinians. Apart from the Abyssinians who tried to make Najran one of the important centers of Christianity in the Arab lands, the support given by the Eastern Roman Empire, which wanted to dominate the Sassanians, was also effective in spreading Christianity throughout the region.  In particular, with the limited spread of Judaism, which started with the acceptance of Judaism by the Himyari King, Zu Nuvas, Christianity lost much of its influence in southern Arabia; the region was later re-Christianized with the involvement of the Byzantine Empire and the Kingdom of Abyssinia. Abyssinian forces even accomplished their aims in southern Arabia, marching on the Hejaz with their governor Abraha, but this campaign failed.

It is stated that one of the reasons for the rapid spreading of Christianity throughout the Arabian Peninsula was the fact that it was much more attractive in appearance than the primitive and simple structure of idolatry; the Christian culture, with its rituals, religious apparel, grandiose temples, statues and icons attracted the Arabs. The poems written to express the attraction of Christianity among Arabs are evidence of this. The intense propaganda of Christian missionaries and priests had a significant effect in the process of the spread of Christianity. The main area in which Christianity spread was northern Arabia, but it was also influential in the coastal areas of the peninsula and Yemen. Among the Arabian tribes in which Christianity was effective, we can count the Kudaa, Ghassan, Lahm, Taglib, Bakr, Bahra, Amila, Sulayh and Iyah.

Furthermore, there were communities, though small in number, that worshipped stars and other stellar objects in the environs of Yemen and Iraq, and there were Zoroastrians who worshipped fire around Bahrain.




Hac Kervaný

There is no doubt that the geography and climatic conditions of the region of the Arabian Peninsula had a significant influence on shaping social life. As a matter of fact, the settled people (hadari) who resided in the oases and the Bedouin nomads who resided in rural areas constituted the two main elements of Arabian society during the Age of Ignorance. This classification reflects the two dominant life-styles in the region, while also demonstrating the distinctive geographical and climatic characteristics of the peninsula. The predominant life-style of northern and central Arabia was a Bedouin life-style; these people lived with limited opportunities in a region that was inhospitable geographically and climatically. The settled people represented the southern life style, where a variety of opportunities existed. This differentiation within Arabian society was first mentioned in the Holy Quran. Those living in the villages and in the cities of the peninsula were referred to as “Arabs”, whereas those living as nomads in the desert were called “A’rab: Bedouin”.

Although the life-style of the Arabs is depicted as that of Bedouins who have settled, they can be divided into two main groups with regard to the branch with which they were affiliated. The first branch, the Arab-i Baida is an extinct Arab tribe that lived in the pre-Islamic centuries, mixing with other tribes and which became forgotten over time. The second branch, the Arab-i Baqiya, continued their existence during the birth of Islam and constituted the peninsula society; this group can be divided into two groups. The first group, comprising the Kahtani tribes of Yemen origin, is called Arab-i Ariba and are the descendants of Shem, the son of Prophet Noah, who was considered the second father of mankind. These tribes had to leave their countries as a result of the Arim flood. The Huzaa tribe migrated to Mecca, whereas the Aws and Hazraj went to Medina and became resident in these locations. Some members of these tribes went to Syria and founded the State of Ghassanid, whereas others went to Iraq and formed the State of Khiral. The Arab-i Musta’riba, the second branch of the Arab-i Ariba, are descendents of Ishmael. This branch is connected to Ishmael, whose father Abraham came to Mecca and married a woman from the Jurhum tribe of the Kahtanis. They are called theAdnanis, referring to Adnan, an ancestor of the Prophet Muhammad; they are also called the Mudaris, the Meaddis, and the Nizaris. One of its largest branches was the Quraishi tribe of which Prophet Muhammad was a member. Most of the tribes affiliated with this clan resided in Mecca and in the surrounding areas; they made up most of the society at that time.


ImageMost of Arabian society could be classified as either Hadari or Bedouin in terms of their life styles; the Bedouins lived a nomadic life in tents made of camel or goat hair, whereas the rest of the population was comprised of settled residents living in villages, towns and cities of adobe houses, the Hadari. When we consider that the location where Islam emerged was central and northern Arabia, then the predominant life-style of this region, which has a desert climate, is that of the  Bedouins. Since ancient times camels have been domesticated by the Arabs and have become indispensable components of desert life due to their resistance to hunger and thirst; over time they have become a fundamental part of the lives of the people living in this region. Camels are incredible animals that can carry up to 200 kilograms in heat of 57 C° without drinking water for 17 days. In Bedouin life, where there is constant migration, spurred on by climatic conditions, a herd of camels is a sign of great wealth for people. Camels have stomachs that are large enough to store food for a week, humps that serve as a food resource, noses that have special membranes that shut out sand during a sand storm, eyes that have a double lining of eyelashes, ears with hairs on the inside, a mouth and digestive system that can withstand eating thorny plants; they can resist cold and hot weather and can drink 60 liters of water at once and distribute this water rapidly throughout their body. In addition to all these features camels have powerful memories that help them to follow ancient routes despite sand dunes that frequently change their shape in sand storms. There can be no doubt that the camel is the most suitable animal for this geography. The terms related to camels in Arabic are numerous enough to fill a book and in the Age of Ignorance the camel often appeared among the main subjects of poetry; from these two facts we can understand the importance of these animals in Arabic society. Camels were able to transport water over long desert journeys. In the development of civilization the camel also played a significant role in intercontinental trade throughout the ancient world.

Although horses were preferred for sudden attacks or during visits paid neighboring tribes, the camel, without a doubt, was the most common animal for transport in Arabian society during the Age of Ignorance. The camel was, and is, also used for its flesh, milk, leather, manure, wool and for providing shade.

Three things that can best define pre-Islamic Arabia are the desert, the camel and Bedouins. The Bedouins, able to survive the harsh conditions of the desert with a miraculous animal like the camel, generally lived inside tents made of camelhair. The Bedouins preferred movable tents that were easy and practical to carry and their weapons, food and the fodder and harnesses of their animals were protected by their tents.

ImageThe negative economic and social conditions of desert life led to frequent conflicts among Bedouin tribes, generally over water and grazing rights. The Ayyamu’l-Arab, the battles between tribes that had laws and rules established by tradition, constitutes a significant place in the pre-Islamic history of central Arabia.

Although the Bedouins formed the backbone of Arabian society in the Age of Ignorance, the semi-nomadic elements who settled in the oases and valleys along different points benefited from the trade caravans; the societies settled along the coasts of the Arabian Peninsula also constituted significant social links within the Arabian Peninsula. However, these components cannot be completely separated. There were nomads who later on adopted a settled city life and there were also city residents who were Bedouins and returned to the nomadic life.

As was the case for all societies in the Arabian Peninsula, all the elements of the population within pre-Islamic Arabian society lived together on common ground. These people needed one another. The oasis societies that were isolated in the middle of the desert handed over their superiority to the Bedouins due to the latter’s military hegemony won by the speed of their mounts. On the other hand, the Bedouins acquired their various needs from the settled societies in the region. In a sense, the nomadic people were eating the dates of the settled people and the settled people were drinking the camel milk of the Bedouins. However, it is possible to say that southern Arabia was much more developed and urbanized in comparison to the northern and central Arabian regions. The advantages there, in terms of agricultural and trade opportunities, considerably influenced such developments. Although the Hejaz oases had an active trade economy in the early periods of Islam, due to the fact that they acted as caravan centers organizing the relations between southern Arabia and the Mediterranean world, this can not be compared with the regional role played by southern Arabia. Thanks to the port of Aden and the Bab-el-Mandeb strait in the Red Sea, southern Arabia served as one of the most important junction points in trade activities between the Mediterranean Sea and the Far East during the period in question. The residents of the coastal region had higher living standards compared to that of the nomads and their main means of living consisted of trade, shipping, fishery, pearl and sponge hunting, as well as a limited amount of agriculture.


ImageWhile the economic life of the Arabian Peninsula changed in accordance with the climatic conditions and social structure, it was generally dependent on animal husbandry, agriculture and trade. The Bedouins, who were prevalent, did not involve themselves in the fields of art and craftsmanship, but generally made their living by means of husbandry, hunting and trade, whereas the settled people carried out lives based on agriculture and trade. Although the peninsula is surrounded by seas on three sides, fishery was only practiced within a limited area.

The Bedouins, whose basic means of subsistence was animal husbandry, also considered their frequent attacks on neighboring cities and villages and on the caravans as an means of living. The trade routes began to pass through the deserts from the earliest periods of history; as a result, the Bedouin Arabs became skilled at attacking caravans and seizing their goods. In addition to stealing camels and food during the attacks, they also abducted children and women and demanded ransom for their release.

It should be noted that trade was an important means for the Bedouins, who obtained their basic needs from the residents of the city. They acquired basic needs such as grains, dates, clothing and pots and pans by selling oil, wool, material made from camel or goat hair, carpets, water jugs and bags made of leather, sack, ropes and mats. During this period, the Bedouins delivered goods to fairs organized in various locations of the peninsula, becoming experts in the caravan trade. Soon the Bedouins provided camels for the international trade caravans that started their journeys in India and China and went as far as Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea through Yemen and the Red Sea. In addition to this, they also maintained the safety of the caravan routes and protected them from various attacks. The income obtained from caravan protection and services as guides for travelers and trade convoys passing through their lands constituted a significant income.

The city people, who constituted the settled population of Mecca, were actively involved in this trade in which the Bedouins were indirectly participating. The most important means of income for the people of Mecca were the pilgrims who came to the region for hajj. In particular, the residents of Mecca would go to the great emporiums around Taif, and they engaged in many commercial activities in the tents pitched under the shadow of date trees. The Meccan residents also participated in trade campaigns conducted to Yemen during the winter and Damascus in the summer. In this way, they contributed to the commercial vibrancy of Mecca, which became an important connection point on the Yemen-Damascus route.



The only administrative body in Mecca was an assembly known as the Mela, composed of the leaders and prominent figures of various tribes. This assembly had no executive power. In the Mela, decisions were taken unanimously after discussing the matters and those decisions were regarded as effective. Apart from this, every tribe was given the right to act independently. In this structure, which had a simple political organization, the authority was represented by the tribe leader, who was referred to with titles of sheik, reis emir, rab, or sayyid. Tribal leaders were chosen from among the elders of each tribe; the person chosen would be someone with status due to their wealth or honor. Each leader had equal rights in the tribal gatherings. Their responsibility was to serve as a judge rather than to rule. The leader had no power of sanction. Their main responsibilities were managing the tribal meetings, representing the tribe in relations with other tribes, dealing with disagreements within the tribe, issuing declarations of war, commanding the army during war, sharing out loot, determining journeys and immigration periods and times, helping the poorer tribe members, signing treaties, welcoming guests, rescuing prisoners of war, and paying blood money. The matters related to justice were referred to arbitrators in Bedouin social life. Anyone who did not obey the decisions of the arbitrators was expelled from the tribe. The matters of the tribes were dealt with in the Mela assemblies. These assemblies also consulted with the leaders. Punishments and rewards were only decided by the above-mentioned assembly. Although tribe members respected the opinions of the leader and the other prominent figures in the Mela, every member had a right of say.

The structure in question undoubtedly reflects the administrative traditions of Bedouin Arabs who resided in deserts and lived in tents. As for the administrative structure of the Mecca, in which people led a settled life, there was a more organized administration tradition. In this structure, a Kaaba-centered administration was formed, as the Kaaba was considered to be the reason for the existence of city. This administration determined the means of living for the population, shaped the religious understanding and cultural structure of the region, and was mainly composed of organizational services related to the Kaaba. There were dozens of such duties being carried out when Islam was introduced. These duties included service sectors, such as sidana (the administration, caretaking and protection of the Kaaba), siqaya (finding and providing water for pilgrims), rifada (providing food for poor pilgrims),uqab (carrying the banner in war), qiyada (commandership), ishnaq (establishment and payment of debts and fines), qubba (the tent where war equipment and ammunition were kept), ainna (bridling, dispatching and control of battle horses), safarat (serving as an emissary), isar (method of divining used to assist in decision-making, in particular related to important matters like journeys and battles), government (dealing with cases), mahcara (the management of money and jewelry donated to the idols of the Kaaba),imara (maintenance of peace and quiet around the Kaaba), nadwa and mashwarat (consultancy assembly). Although some of the duties that were shared out between the various branches of the Quraishi tribe were not very important, they were created to keep the Quraishi happy and to prevent competition and resentment among them. Moreover, the tribe members perhaps thought that this division of labor would contribute to creating an orderly service and would attract many pilgrims to the region.



The basis of the tribe in pre-Islamic Arabian society was the family. The family structure was patriarchal and family relations were determined by relations between men. For this reason, it was important to have many boys in Arabian society to strengthen the family and to raise the prestige of the tribe. Men were regarded as the most important fighting components of the tribes in the harsh desert conditions, where physical strength had a great importance. It was accepted that men had absolute superiority over women. Women were considered to be a social burden. Women had no social status, they were deprived of the right of inheritance, they had no parental rights over their children, even if their husbands were dead, and they were regarded as second class individuals who could only join a family by giving birth to a child. Accordingly, every newborn girl was treated as a valueless and embarrassing member of the family. The Arabs at this time saw no harm in sentencing these girls to death. Although it was asserted that the reason for killing young girls was due to the harsh living conditions of the desert, it is obvious that women were despised. Despite their lowly roles, it can be understood that women undertook fairly important duties in Arabian society. In a social order where Bedouin men passed their time talking about women, love and bravery, or sleeping due to the heat, many tasks fell to Bedouin women during the day. Apart from the duties of giving birth to and raising children, women had many other responsibilities, such as preparing the meals, milking the animals, preparing butter, washing clothes, weaving material for ground cloths, tents and clothing, spinning wool, and pitching and dismantling the tents. However, in a society where the means for enlarging a family was to increase the number of men, the main responsibility of women was to give birth to boys. In Arabian society during the Age of Ignorance, the families were part of a tribe; therefore it would be senseless to speak of independence in the make-up of the family.

In Arabian society, marriage was far from being an institution that guaranteed family life. Although the widespread method of marriage was that a man would marry a woman who was a member of a tribe and branch equal to the man’s tribe, and that he would pay a dowry, in reality very different forms of marriage or relationships existed in society. These different marriages or relationships consisted of those in which a woman would sleep with another man with the approval of her husband in order to have a child, wife swapping, a woman would live with a man as his mistress, but would not be considered an adulteress due to her independence, a woman would concurrently being married to ten different men, temporary marriages, a son would marry his stepmother, or two sisters would marry the same man.



In pre-Islamic Arabian society, which was based on a tribal system of people thought to have come from the same forefathers and who had a blood relationship, the only thing that determined the social values and rules was tribal tradition established by the elders of the tribe. This structure had its own peculiar rules, was consistent in itself and had a protective order. It regulated all the rights of tribal members, particularly those concerned with safety of life and property. Opposing the tribal order or violating these rules, which were known by everyone, meant exclusion from the protection that was regarded as the security system of the desert; this was clearly a form of suicide. Being a member of a tribe not only provided many rights for the individual, but also paved the way for creating a collective understanding of responsibility between the members of the tribe.

During the Age of Ignorance the Arabs lived with a collective consciousness as part of a tribe. They developed their own concepts of morality and virtue in the harsh conditions of the desert. Bravery and strength in battle, patience in disaster, insistence on seeking revenge, being truthful, even at the risk of one’s life, were all perceived as virtues and praised. These played an important role in increasing cooperation within the tribe. Protecting the weak and standing up to the strong were regarded as merits.

Although all these virtues were elements that held the tribe together, the main element that connected the members of the tribe was sensitivity to tribal traditions. This sensitivity ensured feelings of cooperation between members of society, whether they were of the same lineage or not; this is turn represented the psychological power and support that the members of the tribe provided for each other as a result of the belief of being united As a matter of fact, the struggle against the harsh natural conditions and rival tribes required cooperation within the tribe. Accordingly, the Bedouins who had to live together, act together, and struggle with inequalities together practiced a common ownership, except for tents and camels. Soil, food, grass, fire and water were regarded as common possessions of the tribe.

The feeling of belonging to the tribe not only imposed duties and responsibilities, considered to be sacrosanct, upon the individual, but it also fulfilled the role of administration in the economy. All members of the family acted together to compensate for any loss experienced by a tribe member and in case of tribe member being killed, all members would act together to take revenge. As a matter of fact, taking the life of a person protected by these traditions had very serious repercussions. This cost, which was defined as “blood for blood, and a life for a life”, was paid by the murderer to the victim’s relatives. Otherwise, if the person who was responsible for seeking revenge failed to do so, they were believed to be covered in dishonor. For that reason, the issue of killing person incurred extreme efforts, which could lead to the outbreak of long and bloody battles.

The virtues established by tribal rigidity that protected both the life and property of the individuals required that they obey the tribal order and traditions, as well as agreements made with other tribes. The Bedouins did not submit to any authority, but they showed an unconditional submission to tribal traditions.

The tribal bond was very strong and it reinforced the blood relations that were formed between tribes. These blood relations was formed in ways called hilf, djar and wala, and in these ways, new people joined the tribes. Hilf and djar meant a person who had left their tribe or had been expelled from their tribe came under the protection (djar) of a member of another tribe or became an ally (halif) of this member. Wala was the release of a slave who was captured as a result of a battle or attack, or bought from someone.



In the desert life, where people experienced harsh conditions in vast lands, Arabian society found itself in a very different field, composed of poetry and oration. This was their way of resisting the hardships of life and became very significant in uniting a society that was continuously on the move from one place to another. Arabic poetry had many themes, like love, wine, battle, victory, bravery, hatred against the enemy, hunting, nature, tribal virtues; it came in some way to mirror Bedouin life. Everything that entered the life of a Bedouin was transferred to the poems. Numerous wives and children, large flocks, camels and horses, trade, raids and attacks, assaults, wine, and women were the basic social foundation of pre-Islamic Arabian Peninsula, and these were the themes that were mentioned and praised in Arabic poetry and oration. The poets, who were masters of their art and who received a great deal of respect in the country, were regarded as the spokespeople, guides, wise men, orators, and even historians of their community. It was believed that they were supported by a divine power that was not possible for a common man to achieve and they were believed to have been blessed with a special intellect. It was fairly common for the poets to write poems that praised their tribes and criticized enemy tribes. In these poems, there were sections that attacked and sections that were written as answers; these had to be written in the same meter and constitute the same rhyme. The satirical or laudatory poems were the best appreciated. However, satire could easily shift to imprecation while praise could easily shift to adulation.

Thanks to the two-way trade between southern Arabia and the Middle East, and between Mediterranean countries and the Far East, a number of markets and fairs opened in pre-Islamic Arabia. These fairs had an important effect not only on the regeneration of the Arabian social structure, but also on shaping a certain cultural environment in the region. Mecca held important privileges, as it was the religious center of the pagan Arabs. The people of Mecca succeeded in making use of these privileges in trade and contributed to the revival of the commercial and cultural life of the Arabian Peninsula with their trade agreements signed with neighboring countries. As a matter of fact, in the fairs frequented by all tribes, at which both the Iranian drachma and Byzantine dinar were used, there was cultural exchange as well as commercial transactions. The people who came to Medina for pilgrimage from many regions and those who visited the large fairs held during the pilgrimage season, like the fairs at Mina, Macanna, Zulmacaz and Uqaz, found the opportunity to experience the Arabian cultural environment where poetry and oratory contests were held; the winning works were written in gilded letters and hung on the wall of the Kaaba.

The literacy rate was very low in the Arabian Peninsula. The oral poems were written down only at a very late period. For many centuries the poems were memorized and were passed from one generation to another, bringing them down to the Islamic period. Even in Mecca, the most prominent cultural center of the Hejaz where these poems thrived for many years, the number of literate people was less than twenty, according to some accounts. Among the nomadic Arabs there were no literate people. In other centers, this number was even less. The people who learned how to write were the people who needed to write.

Although the literacy rate was low, it can be said that the Arabs had a strong verbal accumulation in certain fields to which they had transferred their knowledge and experiences. Genealogy, a historical tradition mixed with legends, predictions based on the water and climatic conditions about personal health or the health of their animals, and tracking skills can be counted among the “Sciences of the Age of Ignorance.”




Ethiopia is one of the oldest settlement regions of the world, and was founded by the Saba, of Semitic origin, who came from south-eastern Arabia; they soon became one of the dominant powers in the region. Over time Ethiopia became an important link in international trade between the Mediterranean and the Far East when it gained control of ports in the Red Sea.

The people of Ethiopia experienced a religious transformation after King Ezana became a Christian in the fifth century. Later, in the first half of the sixth century, Yemen was influenced by Judaism. As the ruling Himyar king in Yemen, Zu Nuvas, embraced Judaism and suppressed the Christians in the region, the Yemeni Christians, overwhelmed by this oppression, asked for help from their Christian friends in Ethiopia, and as a result Ethiopia invaded Yemen. The Ethiopians began to rule Yemen, with governors being sent from the center who aimed to transform Yemen into one of the important centers of Christianity. The Kullays church was built in Sana. Ebhere, the governor of Yemen, set out on a military campaign to Mecca in 570 in order to destroy the Kaaba, which he saw as a rival of this church, and to take control of the entire Hejaz. The failure of this campaign, which occurred in the year that Prophet Muhammad was born and which turned the people of the Ethiopia against each other, led to the weakening of the dominance of Ethiopia in Yemen. The clashes occurring between the people of Yemen and the invading Ethiopians quickened this process. Soon the Ethiopians were expelled from the region by the Sassanids, the most important power in the region, and thus Ethiopia no longer had a foothold in the Arabian Peninsula. The ensuing power struggles in Ethiopia caused them to lose interest in Arabia. This situation continued until the first Muslims embraced Prophet Muhammad’s invitation to Islam. They were persecuted and tortured, and they fled to Ethiopia to take shelter there. Ethiopia became known as the first state to offer shelter and embrace believers during the early years of Islam and it also earned an important place in the history of the spread of Islam with Najashi Ashama, who was the first foreign ruler outside Arabia to accept Islam.


The Byzantine Empire, the successor of the Roman Empire, reigned over the Balkan Peninsula, Anatolia, Syria, Palestine and Egypt from 330 to 1450. Before the emergence of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula and its sovereignty over a huge region, Byzantium was one of two significant forces in the region, holding territory over three continents. The period of Heraklesios (610-641), which corresponds to the birth of Islam in Arabia, was one of the harshest eras in Byzantine history. The state was going through severe hardships during this period, when there were dynastic struggles, corruption in civil and military administration, and economic decline. Economic and religious embargos laid upon the members of different sects led to serious problems between the state and the people.

In addition to all these domestic threats, as the expansion policy of the Byzantines targeted the lands of the Sassanid Empire, they were faced with serious threats from the Avars and Slavs, bringing the state to the edge of collapse. The invasion by the Sassanid Empire into the eastern provinces in 611 led to the loss of Antioch, Damascus, Jerusalem and Egypt; the Persian army targeted Istanbul, moving along the coast of the Bosphorus. This predicament forced the Byzantine emperor Herakleios to sign a treaty, the terms of which were considerably detrimental. The fact that the Sassanid Empire had defeated the Byzantines, who were considered to be people of the Book (of an Abrahamic, monotheist religion), delighted the polytheist Arabs to whom Prophet Muhammad was conveying Islam. This defeat also led the polytheists to think that the end of the Muslims would be the same as that of the Byzantines.

The Byzantine Empire imported a large variety of luxurious materials from the East; now the Persian Empire was controlling the routes from China and India and the sea routes from India and Ceylon through the Persian Gulf. The Persians were trying to gain economic superiority over the Byzantines, and this frequently pitted the two states against one another. As a matter of fact, it is known that at times when battles did not impede trade, the Byzantines paid large amounts of money to the Sassanids for the acquisition of silks and spices.

After being defeated by the Sassanid Empire, the Byzantine Empire introduced miscellaneous reforms and established a thema (military province) system in Anatolia. This organization was introduced by the state as an alternative to the mercenary military system, which the state no longer relied on, and this led to the establishment of a strong regional army in Anatolia.

With reforms carried out within the army and the administration, the state was able to recover from its predicament and began to stand up to the attacks of the Sassanids; in 627 they expelled the Sassanids from Anatolia in the Battle of Ninova. However, the Byzantine victory against the Sassanids was not enough to solve the domestic political conflicts or the religious problems that resulted from differences among the sects. The failure of the state to maintain its neutrality in religious conflicts and its acting as the supporter of one party led to serious dissatisfaction among the masses. All the success gained by the Byzantine Empire were to become meaningless with the Islamic Conquest that was about to start. Thus, the map of the region was to be re-drawn.


The Sassanid Empire had a well-established state tradition and during the birth of Islam this state, which had embraced Zoroastrianism, was ruled by a dynasty founded in the year 226. Fighting Byzantine to the west and Turks to the east, the empire had boundaries that stretched from Afghanistan to Amu Darya.  The center of the state was located in the rich Iraqi lands.

In order to take control of the Middle East and Egypt, the Sassanid Empire frequently clashed with Byzantium; but when the Byzantine Empire assumed control of these regions, the Sassanids turned their face to the Arabian Peninsula and attempted to penetrate the Persian Gulf and the coasts of southern Arabia. Although the principalities in the mentioned region were annexed to the Sassanid Empire and although the country acquired certain stability, after Nushirawan the Sassanids entered a period of regression; this period of decline did not last long.


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Muhibul Haq
Muhibul Haq22.03.2014
Dear Dr Utku,

You have a written very well and very thoroughly. Your article has some useful information for those who seek useful knowledge.


Mazumdar,Raina khanam
Mazumdar,Raina khanam11.07.2012
Indeed,it is an excellent work .The article reveals in detail the geographilcal as well as social condition of Arabia and the same will benefit the researchers to work further in future.