Thursday, June 17, 2010

(1) Arabia Before Appearance Of Islam.

By Sodium

In ancient time, Arabia used to include not only present-day Saudi Arabia,but also the current political entities of United Arab Emirates, State of Qatar, Sultanate Oman, Kuwait, Yemen and possibly western and southern Iraq where the Christian Ghasanite Arabs lived and also in southern Jordan where the Nabetean Arabs lived in their marvelous city of Petra. The ruin of Petra in southern Jordan is considered, now, one of the Seven Wonders Of The World. While the writer of this essay was stationed in Amman,Jordan in 1970's and 1980's, he had the opportunity to pay several visits, on different occasions, to Petra, along with his family. The more he visited Petra, the more he had/has become fascinated by its structural engineering that was all designed and built in rocks from beginning to end. The canals that where built in rocks to collect raining water had, indeed, a stroke of human genius.

Perhaps, that's why it took the Roman Empire so long to conquer Petra in spite of a very lengthy siege!

The whole point behind mentioning the geography of Arabia is to stress the fact that it was much bigger than nowadays Saudi Arabia and it embodied different tribes of Arabs, some of whom were Christians, (The Ghasanites tribes), and some tribes were Pagans like the Nebetean Arabs of Petra. Some were Jewish Arab tribes,(five tribes),who dwelled in Yathrib, (Medina now), and in the town of Khaybar of ancient Arabia.

It is well known that Yemen was also inhabited by Arab tribes who built well advanced civilization, especially in agriculture. The coffee that billions of human beings enjoy its aroma and taste every morning was first discovered and brewed in Yemen.

As it may be seen that the most advanced civilization occurred at the edges of the Arabian peninsula, while the inside center of Arabia was inhabited by Arab tribes who were waging tribal wars, against one another, for survival, since scarcity of water and green fields for grazing for their domestic animals were rare. Therefore, such tribal warfare is usually caused by a dispute over a well of water or grazing right on a rather slightly greener field. The most eminent factor behind such a tribal warfare was simply the harshness of their geographical and climatical environment, under which sustenance of life was extremely difficult to maintain.

However, central Arabia was inhabited by two kind of Arabs: Arabs who dwelled in cities like Mecca and Yathrib, (it is now called Medina), and Arabs who lived in tents in the harsh Arabian desert. In order to bear the harshness of the desert, all Arabs had to follow unwritten code of social behavior taught to them at a tender age from generation to the next. Such a code is called " muruwah ," written and pronounced also as, " muru,ah. It is very important to understand what "muruwah" means in order to comprehend the ethics of the inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula.

"Muruwah" meant a combination of things to all inhabitants of ancient Arabia:

~ It meant generosity.

~ It meant courage.

~ It meant patience.

~ It meant endurance.

~ It meant protecting the weaker members of the tribe or clan.

~ It meant adherence firmly to the determination to avenge any wrong doing done to the tribe.

~ It meant defying an enemy to the tribe.

~ It meant preserving the honor of the tribe.

~ It meant to be ready,at a short notice,to leap for the defense of relatives.

~ It meant obeying the order of the chief,with no question asked.

The central points behind all of the above are to remember at all time the following three realities of the harsh desert:

* Selfishness in hoarding foods and water by the wealthy Arabs was absolutely un- acceptable while others went thirsty and hungry. Therefore, a tribesman must be " karim," also written as " kareem, " meaning,  " generous. "

* Today's rich tribe may very easily ends up destitute tomorrow.

* No Arab adhering firmly to his "muruwah" will help another Arab, if the latter was terribly stingy and violated the unwritten code of "muruwah" in good days.

That was the human conditions in which Muhammad ibn Abdullah was born: Tribal warfare, the unwritten code of "muruwah", with different kind of religions, ranging from Christianity, mostly at the edges of Greater Arabia and Yemen to Judaism, mostly in the city of Yathrib, (Medina now),to paganism in the city of Mecca and fabulous Nebatean city of Petra, and to some Arab tribes worshipping the Sun and Moon.

The Arabs who did not follow Christianity or Judaism called their Christian and Jewish fellow Arabs: " The People Of The Book, " in reference to the Old Testament and the New Testament, Jewish Arabs and Christian Arabs respectively adhered to.

Arabia was religiously in a state of flux, since most Arabs had no book to follow like their Christian and Jewish minority of Arabs that lived in Greater Arabia, although they passionately were loyal to their goddesses that were kept in the Kab'ah, the holy cubic block of Black stone in the center of Mecca whose master was Qurraysh, the most powerful Arab tribe in all Arabia. Quraysh is Muhammad 's tribe that wanted to kill him, as we shall see later on.

From all of the foregoing, it is suggested to remember the following operative words:

Greater Arabia,
Tribal warfare,
muruwah and what it meant.
The People Of The Book,
The city of Mecca,
The city of Yathrib, (Medina now),
The powerful tribe of Quraysh.


  1. Informative essay. I'd be curious to know, in your opinion, how "muruwah" is practiced (if at all) in contemporary Arabia.

  2. bint-mileh,

    Based on my business dealings in the Arab world in the 1970s and 1980s,some residue of "muruwah" has remained in the Arab people spirit,namely, generousity and desire to help the poor. These two aspects of "muruwah" are quite evident in the now-adays Arab society. I do not know about the rest of the aspects of "muruwah" whether they still adhere to or not. However,I was told by some of my Arab friends that the Bedouin Arabs(nomad Arabs) were still following the unwritten code of "muruwah" in their dealing among themselves. Although I have believed my friends,one way to test that is to live among the Bedouin Arabs as Lawrence of Arabia and John Glubb had done in the first half of the 20TH century-two British nationals who were very fluent in the Arabic language and quite knowledgeable in the Arab history and culture.

  3. Happy Father's Day Sodium. I trust your family is pampering you today.

    Great column. Working in such a culture must have been interesting.
    It is difficult to envision a city such as Petra that was designed and built on rocks just as it is difficult to understand how the pyramids were built.
    Did tribes vary by size? I assume you had to be born into a tribe.

  4. Thank you,elisa. You have predicted it correctly:
    I was pampered by three new books plus one DVD. Most likely,reading those books has to wait till the Winter Season because of shortage of time.

    I regret the fact that I have failed in wishing you a Happy Mother Day in last May. Please forgive my un-intended negligence.

    The answer to your question is yes,tribes vary in size. Some tribes members numbered in hundreds
    while other tribes may have members numbered in the thousands.

    In order to be a member of any tribe,you have to be born to a father and mother who are members of the tribe. It is a heredity thing.

  5. Hi Sodium,

    This post was excellent in providing a cultural framework to begin to understand the development of Middle Eastern culture. As I know you are aware, culture grows & develops not only over decades or centuries but also over millennia.

    This is especially true as it relates to the development of the Middle East. The documentation of hatred between family lines & the warring between those family lines dates back at least 4,000 years to the time of the Middle Eastern patriarch of Abraham & the three generations that followed after him. I would love to hear your take on the lineage of Abraham's son Ishmael (whose mother was an Egyptian) as it relates to Ishmael being the "father of the Arabs." This strongly relates to other posts in your blog as it seems to be a natural point of contention of God's promises as they relate to Ishmael (Abraham's first born of Haggar) and Isaac (Abraham's first born of Sarah).

    On another note as it relates to the title of your post "Arabia Before the Appearance of Islam," the impact of heretical Christianity that had been expelled from Byzantium must be explored (click or copy to your browser for a book by Irfan Shaid that addresses this) in order to understand the cultural & spiritual influences that led to the rise of Mohammed.

  6. Juri,

    I am glad I have just finished reviewing the 14 topic about Islam to find your above comments.

    Although your comments indicate that your knowledge about the development of culture,the Old Testament and Christianity is profound,please understand that this series of topic is essentially designed to help understanding the essence of Islam as it should be understood. Therefore,I cannot deviate from the topic for lack of time. My plate is full and does not allow me to get involved in endless discussion about the development of culture,a faction of the Old Testament and the spread of Christianity.
    Sorry,Juri,I simply cannot get involved in an endless discussion.

    Any way,I do thank you for your knowledgeable comments.