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Sixth Century Arabian Culture

When I started this web-site, its purpose was to be a voice of truth – relying on facts in order to educate both myself and the reader as to what is right, what is truth, and what is good.  It is in this same vein that we continue the conversation, although the topic will be different.  I mentioned last time that I believe that we have a fourth ‘Great Awakening’ in the process of occurring during our lifetime.  Like Pearl Harbor in the twentieth century, this one is also being thrust upon us.  We will not have the luxury of trying to exhaust all peaceful means of resolution as existed during the first two awakenings.  Like it or not, believe it or not, a war is being thrust upon us that we did not start, we did not ask for, nor do we want.  It is not we who have declared this war, but some believers of Islam that have declared war on all who do not hold to its tenets.  Yes, there are peaceful Muslims, but it is not Muslims that are the source of the problem.  I believe with all my heart that the problem rests with the tenets of Islam itself.  Simply put, they are contrary to Judeo-Christian beliefs, and indeed contrary to the beliefs of any other significant religion including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism.  They are even contrary to those who hold to atheism.  The differences in idealism between Islam and other religions transcends not only our views of man’s nature, but includes how we are to live and how we are to be governed, for our very purpose is no longer the same.  But before we can talk about the tenets of Islam, one must have some basic understanding of the culture that it grew out of, and that is the purpose of this particular post.  At least it will be a start.

Some will no doubt say that I am a hater or Islamaphobic.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  If one sees a brother or sister walking in error, we are duty bound to reach out, and that is what I am attempting to do.  Those who would try to prevent the discussion are merely committing a jihad of the tongue or pen, which we will explore in later posts.

Imagine that you are living in the Arabian Peninsula at the end of the 6th century.  It has been about 350 years since Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Roman Empire.  The Empire has split between East and West.  There have been five ecumenical counsels, and a schism exists between the eastern and western church.  It has been almost 200 years since the invasion of Italy by Attila and the Huns, and the subsequent sack of Rome.  It has also been about 150 years since the Saxons invaded Briton.  There were two peoples on the Arabian peninsula.  The Saracens lived across most of the peninsula.  They were made up of two groups; one settled and the other nomadic (Bedouins).  The Sabeans lived primarily in the southern part of the peninsula in what is present day Yemen.  The Sabeans had a well-developed architecture, legal system, and trade.  Their ports served as significant points of trade between Europe and the East.  They were primarily pagan, but there were also Jewish tribes which lived among them.

It is the Saracens who matter for this discussion.  The Bedouin culture was shaped by the land and environment.  Most people lived in a narrow strip of land (the Hijas) along the western edge of the peninsula, or across its southern end.  The group that was more settled lived in a few villages or around one of the oasis.  They typically farmed, with the help of irrigation.  But most lived a nomadic life, following annual routes that had been followed by their father and grandfather before them.  This later group raised grazing stock (camels, sheep, or goats).  Most Arabs were pagans, but there were also Jews and Christians among them, all living together. 

Life was hard.  The nomadic groups were usually quite small, typically no more than two dozen or so people.  There was no central authority.  Instead the basis of authority was the tribe.  Each tribe had its primary deity located in a fixed sanctuary.  These clans and tribes seldom gathered together and not for any length of time.  However, they did gather annually in Mecca during the month of Ramadan for a trade fair.  The Kaaba located there was one of the most significant religious sites on the peninsula. The Kaaba was considered to be a haram, a sacred place where overt conflict was forbidden.  It is thought to have contained about 360 idols, including idols to all of the gods of all of the tribes in Arabia.  A haram was placed in the charge of a particular family, and the head of that family was referred to as a mansib.  Mansibs often acquired significant political power and often served as mediators in tribal disputes.  Even more powerful where the Kahins.  These were tribal shamans who often presented their sacred rituals as poetry, and poetry was considered to be a high art form within the Arab culture at this time. 

The nomadic and settled groups noted above were in conflict.  Wealth was fleeting and could be taken at any time.  The settled tribes typically paid protection to a particular Bedouin clan to keep them safe from other ones.  Allegiances shifted based on the current needs of a particular tribe.  Life was very difficult as often not enough goods could be consistently produced to maintain living conditions for any particular group.

The quality known as muruwa (virility) was paramount.  It was reflected by honor, courage, endurance, and loyalty to one’s group (tribe and/or clan), and one’s social obligations.  Muruwa could be increased by creating alliances beneficial to one’s tribe or performing heroic acts.  Infringements of this moral code rendered the individual liable to insults and the loss of honor.  The killing outside of one’s clan wasn’t necessarily bad.  It depended upon whether the results were judged to achieve a good end.  Blood feuds were frequent and required if one’s muruwa was impugned.  Relations between tribes were generally held together by blood and mutual self-interest. 

If one looked at a map of the known world at the time, it could be divided into four quadrants.  To the northwest was the remains of the Roman Empire.  It was reduced in size and power, and now existed only around the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.  It was Christian, although two separate churches in the east and the west now existed.  In the southwest quarter was the kingdom of Abyssinia.  Located in modern Ethiopia and the Sudan, it also was primarily Christian.  To the northeast was the Persian Empire.  Persia was a truly multi-religious society.  Most of the military and Persian aristocracy were followers of Zoroastrianism, also a monotheistic religion who believed in the god Ahura Mazda.  The largest non-Zoroastrian group were the Nestorian Christians, followed by Jews, Monophysite Christians, and Gnostics.  Finally there were also pagans in Persia.  The Nestorians and Monophysite Christians were considered heretics within the Roman Empire but were welcomed by the Persians. 

In the southeast quadrant was the Arabian Peninsula, which was at times labeled the Empty Quarter on maps from this era.  First the Romans, then the Persians, and finally the Abyssinians each in term attempted to conquer the peninsula, and each one had failed.  Rome and Persia by the end of the sixth century had been fighting each other for over five hundred years.  While they sometimes fought directly with each other, in this part of their empires they often paid what in essence was protection to one tribe to protect their regional interests.  In particular, the Ghassnids were hired by the Romans, and the Laknids by the Persians.  These two tribes were natural enemies as the former was primarily Monophysite and the later Nestorian Christian, and the two sects did not like one another as they thought the other were heretics.

So to summarize, we have the following:

  • A people with much pride, who felt they were being used by other powers for their own ends.

  • A people feeling that they had been left behind as they did not have the wealth of Byzantine, the power of Persia, or the commerce and architecture of Southern Arabia.

  • A weakening in the historical ties of blood between clans and ties, and its replacement by mutual self-interest.

  • The only area in the Near East not dominated by monotheism.

This is the Arabia that existed when Muhammad was born late in the sixth century.  The principles drawn from his revelations constitute the tenets of Islam.  In the next several posts, we will compare and contrast Islamic and Judeo-Christian beliefs in the areas of:  (1) the nature of God, (2) the nature of man/creation, and (3) the relationship between the two.  We will see in what direction we head after that.  Your comments and feedback are always welcome.

Peace and Blessings to you all.

Posted in: Islam

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About Dan Wolf

Dan WolfMy goal is that my writing will help you to get started on your own journey of discovery, or help you along the way on a journey you may have already begun. Our Founders considered education, religion, morality, and virtue to be the cornerstones for any successful society. Being successful requires understanding both the languages of reason and faith; reason alone is insufficient.