The history of Pre-Islamic Arabia
before the rise of Islam
in the 630s
is not known in great detail. Archaeological exploration in the Arabian peninsula
has been sparse; indigenous written sources are limited to the many inscriptions and coins from southern Arabia. Existing material consists primarily of written sources from other traditions (such as Egyptians
, etc.) and oral traditions
later recorded by Islamic scholars.
The study of Pre-Islamic Arabia is important to Islamic studies as it provides the context for the development of Islam.
There are epigraphic Old South Arabian sources from about the 9th century BC, and Old North Arabian one from about the 6th century BC. From the 3rd century AD, Arabian history becomes more tangible with the rise of the Himyarite Kingdom, and with the appearance of the Qahtanis in the Levant and the gradual assimilation of the Nabateans by the Qahtanis in the early centuries AD, a tendency of expansion that finally culminated in the explosive Muslim conquests of the 7th century.
Bronze Age Arabia
Early Semitic migrations
The earliest known events in Arabian history are migrations from the peninsula into neighbouring areas. In the 3rd millennium BC, Semitic-speaking
peoples migrated from the Arabian peninsula into Mesopotamia
, settled in Sumer
, and eventually established the Akkadian Empire
under Sargon of Akkad
(c. 2300 BC).
The East Semitic group established itself at Ebla. The Amorites were West Semitic speakers who left Arabia in the late 3rd millennium BC and settled along the Levant. Some of these migrants evolved into the Arameans and Canaanites of later times.
Magan and A'ad
- Magan is attested as the name of a trading partner of the Sumer. It is often assumed to be located in Oman.
- The A'adids established themselves in South Arabia settling to the East of the Qahtan tribe. They established the Kingdom of A'ad around the 10th century BC to the 3rd century AD.
The A'ad nation were known to the Greeks and Egyptians. Claudius Ptolemy's Geographos (2nd century AD) refers to the place by a Hellenized version of the inhabitants of the capital Ubar.
The Thamud (Arabic: ثمود) were a people of ancient Arabia, either a tribe or a group of tribes, that created a large kingdom and flourished from 3000 BC to 200 BC. 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 Quran, Old Arabian poetry, Assyrian annals (Tamudi), in a Greek temple inscription from the northwest Hijaz of 169 AD, in a 5th-century Byzantine source and in Old North Arabian graffiti around Tayma.
They are mentioned in the victory annals of the Babylonian King, Sargon II (8th Century BC), who defeated these people in a campaign in northern Arabia. The Greeks also refer to these people as "Tamudaei", i.e. "Thamud", in the writings of Aristo, Ptolemy, and Pliny. Before the rise of Islam, approximately between 400-600 AD, the Thamud totally disappeared.
Iron Age South Arabia
Kingdom of Ma'in (9th century BC – 1st century BC)
rule the capital was at Karna (now known as Sadah
). Their other important city was Yathill (now known as Baraqish). The Minaean Kingdom was centered in northwestern Yemen, with most of its cities laying along the Wadi Madhab
. Minaic inscriptions have been found far afield of the Kingdom of Ma'in, as far away as al-`Ula
in northwestern Saudi Arabia
and even on the island of Delos
and in Egypt
. It was the first of the South Arabian kingdoms to end, and the Minaic language died around 100 AD.
Kingdom of Saba (9th century BC – 275AD)
During Sabaean rule, trade and agriculture flourished generating much wealth and prosperity. The Sabaean kingdom is located in what is now the Asir
region in southwestern Yemen, and its capital, Ma'rib, is located near what is now Yemen's modern capital, Sana'a
. According to South Arabian
tradition, the eldest son of Noah
, founded the city of Ma'rib.
During Sabaean rule, Yemen was called "Arabia Felix" by the Romans who were impressed by its wealth and prosperity. The Roman emperor Augustus
sent a military expedition to conquer the "Arabia Felix", under the orders of Aelius Gallus. After an unsuccessful siege of Ma'rib, the Roman general retreated to Egypt
, while his fleet destroyed the port of Aden
in order to guarantee the Roman merchant route to India
The success of the Kingdom was based on the cultivation and trade of spices and aromatics including frankincense and myrrh. These were exported to the Mediterranean, India, and Abyssinia where they were greatly prized by many cultures, using camels on routes through Arabia, and to India by sea.
During the 8th and 7th century BCE, there was a close contact of cultures between the Kingdom of Dʿmt in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea and Saba'. Though the civilization was indigenous and the royal inscriptions were written in a sort of proto-Ethiosemitic, there were also some Sabaean immigrants in the kingdom as evidenced by a few of the Dʿmt inscriptions.
Agriculture in Yemen thrived during this time due to an advanced irrigation system which consisted of large water tunnels in mountains, and dams. The most impressive of these earthworks, known as the Ma'rib Dam was built ca. 700 BCE, provided irrigation for about of land and stood for over a millennium, finally collapsing in 570 CE after centuries of neglect.
Kingdom of Hadhramaut (8th century BC – 3rd century AD)
The first known inscriptions of Hadramaut are known from the 8th century BCE. It was first referenced by an outside civilization in an Old Sabaic
inscription of Karab'il Watar from the early 7th century BC, in which the King of Hadramaut, Yada`'il, is mentioned as being one of his allies. When the Minaeans took control of the caravan routes in the 4th century BC, however, Hadramaut became one of its confederates, probably because of commercial interests. It later became independent and was invaded by the growing kingdom of Himyar
toward the end of the first century BC, but it was able to repel the attack. Hadramaut annexed Qataban in the second half of the 2nd century AD, reaching its greatest size. The kingdom of Hadramaut was eventually conquered by the Himyarite king Shammar Yuhar`ish around 300 AD, unifying all of the South Arabian kingdoms.
Kingdom of Awsan (8th century BC – 6th century BC)
The ancient Kingdom of Awsan
in South Arabia (modern Yemen
), with a capital at Hagar Yahirr in the wadi Markha, to the south of the wadi Bayhan, is now marked by a tell
or artificial mound, which is locally named Hagar Asfal
The Achaemenids in Northern Arabia
Achaemenid Arabia corresponded to the lands between Egypt
, later known as Arabia Petraea
. According to Herodotus
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.
The Nabateans are not to be found among the tribes that are listed in Arab genealogies because the Nabatean kingdom ended a long time before the coming of Islam. They settled east of the Syro-African rift between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea, that is, in the land that had once been Edom
. And although the first sure reference to them dates from 312 BC, it is possible that they were present much earlier.
Petra (from the Latin petrae, meaning 'of rock') lies in a great rift valley east of Wadi `Araba in Jordan about 80 kilometers south of the Dead Sea. It came into prominence in the late first century BCE (BC) through the success of the spice trade. The city was the principal city of ancient Nabataea and was famous above all for two things: its trade and its hydraulic engineering systems. It was locally autonomous until the reign of Trajan, but it flourished under Roman rule. The town grew up around its Colonnaded Street in the first century and by the mid-first century had witnessed rapid urbanization. The quarries were probably opened in this period, and there followed virtually continuous building through the first and second centuries CE.
Palmyra was made part of the Roman province of Syria during the reign of Tiberius (14–37). It steadily grew in importance as a trade route linking Persia, India, China, and the Roman empire. In 129, Hadrian visited the city and was so enthralled by it that he proclaimed it a free city and renamed it Palmyra Hadriana.
In the mid-first century, Palmyra, a wealthy and elegant city located along the caravan routes linking Persia with the Mediterranean ports of Roman Syria and Phoenicia, came under Roman control. 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 west.
Qataban & Himyar in South Arabia
Kingdom of Qataban (4th century BC – 3rd century AD)
Qataban was one of the ancient Yemeni kingdoms which thrived in the Baihan valley. Like the other Southern Arabian kingdoms it gained great wealth from the trade of frankincense and myrrh incense which were burned at altars. The capital of Qataban was named Timna and was located on the trade route which passed through the other kingdoms of Hadramaut, Saba and Ma'in. The chief deity of the Qatabanians was Amm, or "Uncle" and the people called themselves the "children of Amm".
Kingdom of Himyar (2nd Century BC – 525 AD)
rebelled against Qataban and eventually united Southwestern Arabia, controlling the Red Sea as well as the coasts of the Gulf of Aden. From their capital city, the Himyarite Kings launched successful military campaigns, and had stretched its domain at times as far east to the Persian Gulf and as far north to the Arabian Desert.
During the 3rd century CE, the South Arabian kingdoms were in continuous conflict with one another. Gadarat of Aksum began to interfere in South Arabian affairs, signing an alliance with Saba', and a Himyarite text notes that Hadramaut and Qataban were also all allied against the kingdom. As a result of this, the Kingdom of Aksum was able to capture the Himyarite capital of Thifar in the first quarter of the 3rd century. However, the alliances did not last, and Sha`ir Awtar of Saba' unexpectedly turned on Hadramaut, allying again with Aksum and taking its capital in 225. Himyar then allied with Saba' and invaded the newly taken Aksumite territories, retaking Thifar, which had been under the control of Gadarat's son Beygat, and pushing Aksum back into the Tihama.
Aksumite occupation of Yemen (525 AD – 570 AD)
The Aksumite intervention is connected with Dhu Nuwas
, a Himyarite king who changed the state religion to Judaism
and began to persecute the Christians in Yemen. Outraged, Kaleb
, the Christian King of Aksum
with the encouragement of the Byzantine Emperor Justin I
invaded and annexed Yemen. The Aksumites controlled Himyar and attempted to invade Mecca in the year 570CE, Eastern Yemen remained allied to the Sassanids via tribal alliances with the Lakhmids, which later brought the Sassanid army into Yemen ending the Aksumite period.
Sassanid period (570 AD – 630 AD)
king Khosrau I
, sent troops under the command of Vahriz
(Persian اسپهبد وهرز), who helped the semi-legendary Saif bin Dhi Yazan
to drive the Ethiopian Aksumites
out of Yemen. Southern Arabia became a Persian dominion under a Yemenite vassal and thus came within the sphere of influence of the Sassanid Empire
. After the dissolvment of the Lakhmids
another army was sent to Yemen making it a province of the Sassanid Empire under a Persian satrap
. Following the death of Khosrau II in 628, then the Persian governor in Southern Arabia, Badhan
, converted to Islam and Yemen followed the new religion.
Qahtani expansion to the North
times, Arabia Petraea
was a border province between the Roman and Persian empires, and from the early centuries AD was increasingly affected by South Arabian
influence, notably with the Ghassanids
migrating north from the 3rd century.
Ghassanids, Lakhmids and Kindites
The Ghassanids,Lakhmids and Kindites were the last major migration of non-muslims out of Yemen to the north and southwestern borders.
- The Ghassanids revived the Semitic presence in the then Hellenized Syria. They mainly settled the Hauran region and spread to modern Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan. The Ghassanids held Syria until engulfed by the expansion of Islam.
Greeks and Romans referred to all the nomadic population of the desert in the Near East as Arabi. The Greeks called Yemen "Arabia Felix". , The Romans called the vassal nomadic states within the Roman Empire "Arabia Petraea" after the city of Petra, and called unconquered deserts bordering the empire to the south and east Arabia Magna.
- The Lakhmids settled the mid Tigris region around their capital Al-hira they ended up allying with the Sassanid against the Ghassanids and the Byzantine Empire. The Lakhmids contested control of the Central Arabian tribes with the Kindites with the Lakhmids eventually destroying Kinda in 540 after the fall of their main ally Himyar. The Sassanids dissolved the Lakhmid kingdom in 602.
- The Kindites migrated from Yemen along with the Ghassanids and Lakhmids, but were turned back in Bahrain by the Abdul Qais Rabi'a tribe. They returned to Yemen and allied themselves with the Himyarites who installed them as a vassal kingdom that ruled Central Arbia from Qaryah dhat Kahl (the present-day Qaryat al-Faw) in Central Arabia. They ruled much of the Northern/Central Arabian peninsula until the fall of the Himyarites in 525AD.
Much of the Arab
lineages provided before Ma'ad
relies on biblical genealogy. The general consensus among 14th century Arabic genealogists was that Arabs are of three kinds:
- "Perishing Arabs": These are the ancients of whose history little is known. They include ‘Ad, Thamud, Tasm, Jadis, Imlaq and others. Jadis and Tasm perished because of genocide. Ad and Thamud perished because of their decadence. Some people in the past doubted their existence, but Imlaq is the singular form of 'Amaleeq and is probably synonymous to the biblical Amalek.
- "Pure Arabs": They allegedly originated from the progeny of Ya‘rub bin Yashjub bin Qahtan so were also called Qahtanian Arabs.
- "Arabized Arabs": They allegedly originated from the progeny of Ishmael Son of the biblical patriarch Abraham and were also called ‘Adnani Arabs.
There is very little material on which to base a description of pre-Islamic religion, particularly in Mecca and the Hijaz. The Qur'an and the hadith, or recorded oral traditions, give some hints as to this religion. Islamic commentators have elaborated these hints into a coherent account that most academics doubt in part or in whole.
Christianity is known to have been active in the region prior to the rise of Islam, especially unorthodox, possibly gnostic forms of it. Some tribes practised Judaism.
Rise of Islam
The rise of Islam started with the Conquest of Mecca in 630. The initial Arab Muslim conquests (632–732) began after the death of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. He established a new unified political polity in the Arabian peninsula which under the subsequent Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates saw a century of rapid expansion of Arab power well beyond the Arabian peninsula in the form of a vast Muslim Arab Empire with an area of influence that stretched from northwest India, across Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, southern Italy, and the Iberian Peninsula, to the Pyrenees.
Andrey Korotayev and his colleagues suggest to view the origins of Islam against the background of the 6th century AD Arabian socioecological crisis whose model is specified by Korotayev and his colleagues through the study of climatological, seismological, volcanological and epidemiological history of the period. They find that most sociopolitical systems of the Arabs reacted to the socioecological crisis by getting rid of the rigid supratribal political structures (kingdoms and chiefdoms) which started posing a real threat to their very survival. The decades of fighting which led to the destruction of the most of the Arabian kingdoms and chiefdoms (reflected in Ayyam al-`Arab tradition) led to the elaboration of some definite "antiroyal" freedom-loving tribal ethos. At the beginning of the 7th century a tribe which would recognize themselves as subjects of some terrestrial supratribal political authority, a "king", risked to lose its honour. However, this seems not to be applicable to the authority of another type, the "celestial" one. At the meantime the early 7th century evidences the merging of the Arabian tradition of prophecy and the Arabian Monotheist "Rahmanist" tradition which produced "the Arabian prophetic movement". The Monotheist "Rahmanist" prophets appear to have represented a supratribal authority just of the type many Arab tribes were looking for at this very time, which seems to explain to a certain extent those prophets' political success (including the extreme political success of Muhammad) (Origins of Islam: Political-Anthropological and Environmental Context. Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae. 53/3–4 (1999): 243–276) (with Vladimir Klimenko and Dmitry Proussakov).
- Berkey, Jonathan P. — The Formation of Islam, Cambridge University Press, 2003, ISBN 978-0-521-58813-3
- Bulliet, Richard W. — The Camel and the Wheel, Harvard University Press, 1975, ISBN 0-674-09130-2
- Crone, Patricia — Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, Blackwell, 1987, as reprinted by Gorgias Press, 2004, ISBN 1-59333-102-9
- Donner, Fred — The Early Islamic Conquests, Princeton University Press, 1981, ISBN 0-691-10182-5
- Hawting, G.R. — The Idea of Idolatry and the Emergence of Islam: From Polemic to History, Cambridge University Press, 1999
- Hoyland, Robert G. — Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam, Routledge, 2001
- Korotayev, Andrey. Ancient Yemen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-19-922237-1.
- Korotayev, Andrey. Pre-Islamic Yemen. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1996. ISBN 3-447-03679-6.
- Yule, Paul. - Himyar–Die Spätantike im Jemen/Himyar Late Antique Yemen (Aichwald 2007), ISBN 978-3-929290-35-6
Aisha is quoted as saying there was four kinds of marriage in the pre-Islamic era, one of them being a form of polyandry called Nikah Ijtimah.