Dr. Susmit Kumar

Before the advent of Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism were the two religions prevalent in the Middle East. Some of Iraq and all of Iran followed the Zoroastrian religion, including its main heresies, Manichaeanism and Mazdaism. Parts of Iraq and all the regions of the Byzantine Empire to the west followed one of the several forms of Christianity. On the eve of Islam, the Coptic church was the church of Egypt; the Jacobite church was the church of Syria; the Nestorian church prevailed in Iraq; the people of Armenia followed the Armenian church; and the people of Anatolia and the Balkans followed in the main the Greek Orthodox church. In addition, Jewish communities and a few pagan enclaves were scattered throughout the area.[1]

According to biblical and quranic testimony, Arabs are descendants of Shem, oldest son of Noah; hence the appellation “Semite.” The word “Arab” is traditionally said to derive from the little town of Araba in the southeast district of the Tihamah, where, according to legend, settled Ya’rab the son of biblical Joktan—the eponymous father of the original Arabs— thus imparting his name to the locality and, by extension, to the entire peninsula and its inhabitants. More appropriately, the term derives from the Semitic word root referring to “nomad.”[2]

The Arab population was divided into a number of tribes consisting of shaykh (chief), qa’id (war leader), hakam (dispute settler), free families, certain protected clients not related by blood, and slaves. Each tribe consisted of anywhere from a few hundreds to tens of thousands of members. In the settlement of disputes within a tribe, the rule of “an eye for an eye” was usually applied. For example, the killing of a camel required payment of exactly one camel, and killing a son required killing the murderer’s son. There was, however, a provision for “blood money,” a pecuniary amount the aggrieved party could accept in lieu of retribution. Longstanding customs were the law, and these rules varied among the tribes. Crimes committed against member(s) of another tribe(s) were not punishable. But it was the duty of the shaykh to avenge crimes against his own tribe.

Mecca had been a center of pilgrimage since long before Mohammad’s time. People from all over the Arabian Peninsula used to come and pray at Ka’ba. The Ka’ba in his time was a simple, nearly cubic-shaped structure of dark stone.  In one of its four corners was set a black stone, generally thought to be a meteorite remnant. The black stone is an ovoid somewhat larger than a bowling ball, now fractured into pieces and held together by a silver frame. The Ka’ba is said to have contained 360 idols, one for each day of the lunar year. Arabs had a creator god, “Allah,” which was a contraction of the word al-ilah, meaning “the God”. Near the Ka’ba, there is a well called Zamzam, which is fed by an underground spring. Every year, people from everywhere come to the Arabian Peninsula to make the hajj pilgrimage.

The Quraysh tribe controlled the Ka’ba and had pacts with other tribes to maintain its sanctity. The Quraysh also kept other tribes’ idols inside it. They in addition controlled the business of goods and services to pilgrims, a significant source of earning for them. The area for a few miles around the Ka’ba was declared “haram,” forbidden to warfare.

1 Lapidus, Ira M, A History of Islamic Societies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (UK), 1988, p. 7.

2 Farah, Caesar E., Islam, Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., Hauppauge, NY, 6th ed., 2000, pp. 18-19.

Additional information