This article will talk about Muhammad and Islam as historical and social constructions of the VII century Arabia. For this reason, Muhammad will be treated not as a prophet, but as a leader of men, whilst Islam will be used as the name given to the new Arabian society and reality. This said, no quotes should be taken as a critic of Islam or Muhammad.Disclaimer
The reality of Arabia before Islam
Arabia and the Middle East
One of the main elements to address is that Arabia was in no way isolated from the rest of the Middle East, being in constant contact with the powers from beyond the deserts that separated them from the riches of Mesopotamia or Syria.
This would be especially important since it also meant that Arabia was influenced by the great powerhouses that ruled the Middle East shortly before the birth of Muhammad: The Byzantine Empire, also called Eastern Roman Empire, who owned the lands of Palestine, Syria, Egypt and Upper Mesopotamia, and the Sassanid Empire, owner of the rest of Mesopotamia and the lands East from the river Tigris.
Both powers looked to keep good relations with the Arabian tribes that bordered their respective land. The Byzantines kept especially good relations with a nomadic confederation of Arabian tribes called Banu Gassan or Ghassanids, based around Transjordan and vassals of Byzantium who shielded their border from raids performed by tribes from the interior of Arabia.
The Sassanid Empire, who also wanted to secure their border with Arabia, kept good relations with the Banu Lakhm or Lakhmids, based around their stronghold of al-Hira. The Sassanid Shah, Khosrow II, would, however, invade and annex Lakhmid territory in the year 604 A.D., which now meant that they were no longer shielded from the tribes of the interior of Arabia, would crushingly defeat his forces in the battle of Dhi Qar.
The struggle between Byzantines and Sassanids to gain more influence in Arabia wasn’t limited only to the Arabian tribes that bordered their land. The Christian Kingdom of Aksum, allied with the Byzantines, also tried to assert their influence in Arabia, conquering Yemen during the first half of the V century. This land would soon break from Aksumite rule, and then conquered and subjugated by the Sassanids alongside the rest of South Arabia.
Struggle for power
The conflict between Byzantines and Sassanids was far from simple diplomatic strifes in the proxy region of Arabia, with both empires entering in a brutal war during the first three decades of the VII century, a conflict that could be divided into two phases.
The first phase would go decisively in favour of the Sassanids, who went on the offensive in the year 605, and during the next 15 years of the war, struck blow after blow to the Byzantines, conquering Syria, Palestine and Egypt.
The second phase would decide the outcome of the war. With the Empire in disarray and Constantinople threatened, Emperor Heraclius launched a vigorous counterattack that allowed him to retake all his lost land and push deep into Sassanid territory, halted near Ctesiphon both by exhaustion and by enemy resistance.
This Pyrrhic victory left both Sassanids and Byzantines critically weakened to the new threat that was forming in Arabia. With both powers depleted and exhausted after their war for survival, they seemed ripe for the taking.
Arabia was defined by its tribal groups, some of which were sedentary, dedicated to agriculture, and others were nomadic, dedicated to trade, grazing or raiding. These tribes were divided into clans, who were blood-related. Some of these tribes could form nomadic confederations, like the Ghassanids, or evolve into more complex monarchies, like the Lakhmids.
The Middle East was during these times very fragmented religious-wise. The Byzantine Empire tried to consolidate Orthodox Christianity in their territories (with low success) and the Sassanid Empire gripped onto Zoroastrianism. The Arabian vassals of both Empires had embraced Christianity, with the Ghassanids following Monophysitism and the Lakhmids following Nestorianism, both considered heresies by the Church.
Judaism thrived in the south of Arabia and in certain areas of the Hejaz, although it’s unclear whether it came by the hand of immigrants from Palestine or simply by Arabians choosing to convert to Judaism. Finally, most of Arabia followed a Pagan religion of Semitic origin that upheld three Goddesses, daughters of a supreme God that received the name of Allah.
The land of the Hejaz, core and centre of future Islam, was a desolate landscape, deprived of ports and maritime trade because of their coral banks, with agriculture being the main income of the region, made possible mostly in the oasis. The cities of Yathrib (future Medina), al-Ta’if and Mecca were the most important enclaves in the Hejaz.
The importance of Mecca
The most important of them all would probably be Mecca. Even though this rudimentary form of agriculture was impossible to practice, the settlement flourished under the rule of Qusayy, member of the Banu Quraysh, who managed to create a vast and complex land trade route from Mecca, taking advantage from the existence of their famous sanctuary, founded by Abraham.
This sanctuary, called “haram“, was a place of pilgrimage and deemed as holy, even though Abraham dedicated the sanctuary to the worship of the only God, but Arabs were said to have fallen into the “Jahiliyyah” or ignorance, the reason why it was used during these times to worship their pagan gods.
The figure of Muhammad
According to Muslim tradition, Muhammad was born in the city of Mecca into a family from the Quraysh tribe, but the family in question was far from the power held by other families from said tribe. Muhammad would remain an orphan at the age of 6, being placed under the care of his paternal uncle, Abu Talib, who raised him to become a merchant.
At the age of 25, Muhammad married a rich woman called Khadija, whose fortune was also made by trading. They had several children, most of whom died at a young age, being Fatimah the most important for her role in the future history of Islam.
At the age of 40, the life of Muhammad changed completely. He had made a habit out of periodically going to a hill close to Mecca to meditate and pray. During one of these retreats, a voice told him:
You are the messenger of God
The voice then ordered him to “Iqra” (read), to what Muhammad answered that he was unable to do so. The voice then answered:
Read! In the name of your Lord who created Man from a clinging substance (…)Quran (Chapter 96 1-5)
Muhammad thought at first that he had been possessed by demonic spirits, understanding eventually that this was not the case, helped by his wife Khadija, who argued that the voice Muhammad heard was non-other than the Archangel Gabriel.
The Quraysh opposed Muhammad and his new message, since it went against the traditional convictions of the peoples of Mecca, whilst also going against their own government. This meant they rapidly moved against Muhammad and his group of followers, boycotting their commercial transactions and stating that Muhammad was indeed a false prophet, possessed by evil spirits.
With the Quraysh openly hostile towards the newly born Muslims, and with most of the people of Mecca swayed against them for fear of the power and influence of the Quraysh, Muhammad decided to abandon Mecca. He first marched to Al-Taif, where he also found hostility and indifference to his message. He then decided to stay in Yathrib, that would later be known as “Madinat an-Nabi” or City of the Prophet.
The city was divided into two tribes that fought for power: the Aws and the Khazraj. After an endless struggle, they decided to call for a truce and let the newly arrived Prophet settle their differences since some believed him to be the Messiah promised to the Jews.
Muhammad and his “muhajir” or emigrants were received well by a good portion of the people of Medina, who converted to Islam and received the name of “Ansar” or helpers. With Muhammad’s help, the elites of Medina formed a confederation that included all people of Medina and Muslims alike, which would receive the name of “Umma” or community, unique in all of Arabia up to this point, that sheltered and protected Muslims.
With an increasing number of “muhajir” and with the support of Medina, Muhammad started his particular payback against the Quraysh of Mecca, who started imposing heavy tolls on people who wanted to migrate to Medina from Mecca.
His men started raiding Quraysh caravans, and in the Battle of Badr of 624, they crushed a Mecca army that went to defend one of said caravans. In fear of losing all possibilities of trading because of Muslim attacks, the Quraysh amassed another army, sending it against Medina in 625.
The Muslims rallied to receive the Quraysh on a hill called Uhud but were defeated thanks to a cavalry commander from Mecca called Khalid Ibn al-Walid, who would be very important in years to come. The Quraysh failed, however, to take Medina, allowing Muhammad to recover from his losses, consolidate his leadership over Medina, and to seek allies throughout the Hejaz.
In 627, the Quraysh sent an army of 10.000 men to tackle the Muslim threat once and for all. Muhammad, learning from his previous mistakes in Uhud, decided to wait for them in the city, fortifying it heavily. The enemy, not expecting a siege and ill-prepared to mount one on the spot, decided to leave. This would greatly increase the image of Muhammad, allowing him to gain more followers from all over the Hejaz.
In 628, Muhammad decided to march on Mecca with a huge number of followers, but on a twist that baffled the Quraysh, he marched in peace, wanting to visit the “Haram” of Mecca. He also struck a bargain with his enemies that included a ten-year truce and permission for Muhammad to visit the “Haram” the following year.
This accord, called “Treaty of Hudaybiyyah“, caused a huge fracture amongst the Quraysh, with some, like the general al-Walid, that converted to Islam and followed Muhammad, and others that pushed for a permanent accord with the Muslims. After Muhammad marched on Mecca in 629, the Quraysh surrendered after presenting low resistance.
The birth of a new power
Muhammad decided to forgive most of the city, including the Quraysh, from past grievances against him and his followers. During the next two years, he consolidated his power in Mecca and Medina and focused on spreading Islam to the rest of Arabia, defeating the Arabs from al-Ta’if in 630, which not only granted him control over the city but also over all of the Hejaz, with many tribes submitting to him and converting to Islam.
Other tribes from Arabia, especially those from the south and interior of the Arabian Peninsula, that saw an opportunity to remove themselves from the Sassanid yoke after their descent into chaos and turmoil, sent delegates to negotiate non-aggression pacts with Muhammad in exchange for them accepting him as the messenger of Allah, even sending alms or “Sadaqa” to Medina.
Using a combination of arms and diplomacy, Muhammad had successfully managed to spread Islam over most of Arabia. In 632 he fell ill, and performed his last pilgrimage to Mecca, a moment in which he left clear instructions on how to perform the “Hajj“, a pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim must do at least once in his lifetime.
Muhammad would later die in June, 632, leaving as his legacy a mostly Muslim Arabia, with his successors keen to follow in his footsteps and spread his message all over the globe. With the Sassanids and Byzantines dealing with internal conflicts, they didn’t notice the threat that was upon to shatter their existence and change the world for centuries to come.
- MANZANO MORENO E. (1992) Historia de las Sociedades Musulmanas en la Edad Media.
- The Quran.
- GUILLAUME A. (2004) The life of Muhammad: A translation of Ishaq’s Sirat Rasut Allah.