Wine in New Bottles – The Genesis of Islam
"Eschatological piety and fear of hellfire recall Syriac
monastic preaching. The role of the prophet, the significance of written
revelation, obedience of God's commands, and stress on communal
life as the context of religious fulfillment all parallel
– Ira Lapidus (A History of Islamic Societies, p25)
centuries the Arabian peninsula had been entangled in the politics
Persian and Axum. Textiles and finished goods, weapons and
techniques, superstitions and ideas, all came from outside. Among
tribal organisation was everything, engendering fierce loyalties
and equally fierce enmities. Like the Irish tribes of the same
period, nothing encouraged a 'national' unity or government,
there was no higher authority than the tribal sheikh.
Although the Hejaz (western
Arabia) itself was never colonised it had been affected by the
migrations of peoples and the vagaries of the caravan trade.
With the rise of maritime trade and the decline of Arabia's overland
caravan traffic, tribes that had settled in the oases either
migrated elsewhere or reverted to nomadism. The towns themselves
By the 6th
century the ancient southern and northern kingdoms of the peninsular
were well into decline, with many of their clans migrating to
the border lands of Byzantium and Persia.
by war and pestilence, and with their frontier provinces wrecked,
neither Persia nor Byzantium perceived the fragmented tribes
of Arabia as any threat and hired the new arrivals as 'frontier
guards' and mercenaries.
of the ruinous legacy of the Christian monarch Justinian (527-565)
directly favoured the rise of Islam.
Persian wars had disrupted the 'Silk Road' from Hamadan to Antioch
and Justinian's plan was to re-route Asian trade north
of the Caspian Sea (he sent emissaries to the Turks
of Transoxia), but the arrival of Avars from central Asia
scuttled that idea.
pre-occupied with the reconquest of the west, withdrew Roman
shipping from the Red Sea. To keep the trade route open he relied
upon diplomatic pressure on the Ethiopians. Unfortunately, what
remained of maritime trade was catastrophically affected by plague
rats arriving from East Africa.
in Mesopotamia and the decline of Red Sea shipping once again
gave a fillip to the caravan route along the Hejaz. Only one
caravan town was in a position to respond to
the opportunity: Mecca.
Days of Ignorance'
by the Koresh tribe, was the one Arabian town enjoying any sort
of prosperity in the 6th century. The sanctuary of the Kaaba,
centre of an annual pilgrimage and pan-tribal market, benefitted
a lively livestock and slave trade, as well as the multi-faith
shrine itself. But it was a wild 'frontier' town, rife with alcoholism,
and idol-worship. Muhammad
ibn Abdallah ('an original and superior genius'
born into the Koresh Banu
became an affluent but disaffected urban merchant who saw virtue
in the puritanical tribal values of the desert nomads.
when a boy Muhammad had the good fortune to be raised by
a grandfather who happened to be head of the ruling clan of Mecca.
As a young man he worked the caravan trade and married his employer,
a wealthy widow. Doubly blessed, Muhammad had the leisure time
to ponder the nature of the gods and plan his career.
"From his earliest
youth Mahomet was addicted to religious contemplation; each
year, during the month of Ramadan ... in a cave of Hera,
from Mecca, he consulted the spirit of fraud or enthusiasm,
whose abode is not in the heavens, but in the mind of the
prophet." – Edward Gibbon.
entering a state of trance (wahi), probably as a consequence
of meditative experiments, Muhammad inevitably saw 'visions'
and heard 'voices'.
His devoted wife Khadeejah was there to reassure him not only
of his sanity but of a divine appointment.
The delusion was nothing less than 'final cosmic messenger' of
God himself, a conviction
enthusiastically endorsed by an entourage which included 'Salmân
the Persian', an ex-Zoroastrian, and Warraqa ibn Nawfal,
the cousin/uncle of the Muhammad's wife Khadeejah and a Christian.
Temporal lobe epilepsy?
Daily contact with sheep might explain a lot about "mystical
I am advised by a practicing physician that
the trances experienced
a'hadith (narrations about the life of the
Prophet) correspond to a classic case of "tonic-clonic
epilepsy with a temporal start."
tuberculosis is a problem even today and raged unchecked
times. This type of tuberculosis
transmitted to humans and when a human is infected
the disease travels directly to the brain where it forms
mass causes a great deal of irritation and brings on
Prophet, we are told, heard ringing in his ears, his
beat rapidly, his face
turned red and his breathing laboured. Falling to
the ground, he would shake with his eyes
wide open and his lips trembling.
He would drool or sweat profusely and would sometimes
make a sound like a snoring camel. And, of course,
saw and heard things no one else saw or heard.
a victim of such convulsions there is little doubt
that Muhammad himself was convinced God (or
Centuries later the same "mystical experience"
was shared by that pastoral maid of Orleans Joan of
Arc – who
in close contact with sheep.
ordinary Arab merchant assumed the mantle of cultic leader
and self-styled prophet. Not surprisingly, the wider population
of Mecca either ignored or
derided his prophetic pretensions.
Frustrated and yet fortified by the rejection, Muhammad and
some of his loyal cult members retreated to the rival town of
Yathrib (Medina). Others crossed the Red Sea to take up residence
fierce inter-tribal warfare allowed 'Muhammad the holy man' to
take on a role of 'arbitrator.'
Emerging from the conflict as a prominent religious leader
Muhammad could now formulate serious political ambition and
a reckoning with the Meccan establishment. Combining in his own
person both religious and military
leadership he could now strike back at
the skeptics and rejectors of his prophetic status by deploying
a private army and singling
out critics for assassination or execution.
From his base
at Medina, several years of banditry
won Muhammad a
large following. For eight
he raided the Meccan caravans and imposed an alms tax ('zakat') on
the tribes. Ultimately, he would plunder the pagan riches of the
shrine at Mecca.
Prophet': Caesar AND Pope
'Islam' was eclectic and opportunistic. The religious influences
upon 7th century Arabia were myriad. All represented a higher
civilization than Arabia's tribal society which must have distressed
that, over the course of twenty two years, he communed with an
angel, Muhammad borrowed freely from the older faiths to fashion
a monotheistic religion adapted for the tribal
society of Arabia fused with an ideology of divinely
day Judaism and Christianity had
been long established among the Arabs,
the Jews for centuries and in considerable numbers after the
Roman wars, and the Christians from the mid-2nd century. Missionaries
and proselytisers, they had converted whole tribes of Arabs to
their cause. As with the German tribes of Europe, faith was not
an article of individual conviction but a tribal allegiance and
by the 6th century there were Jewish tribes and Christian tribes.
In Medina, Muhammad lived among Jews and had an intimate acquaintance
with Judaism. He also either encountered or received at second
hand knowledge of diverse and heretical Christian sects.
failed to convince the Jews of Medina that he was the latest
(and last) prophet he turned against them, maintaining that they
their own Bible. In 624 Muslim prayer mats were turned
from facing Jerusalem to facing Mecca. Two Jewish tribes were driven out
and a third decimated. The plunder helped
his cause. Eventually
Meccan resistance collapsed, particular after Muhammad enshrined
the old pagan pilgrimage to Mecca as a pillar of the new faith.
Yet for all
his successes the confederation inspired by Muhammad's charismatic
personality – he
welded together an unlikely coalition of ex-merchants, desert
nomads, and agriculturalists – did
not survive his death. Most Arabs, particularly the nomadic
and semi-nomadic Bedouin, remained at heart polytheistic pagans
and Muhammad's successor Abr Bakr (632-634) immediately had to
crush a rival alliance of tribes in eastern Arabia, and even
been riven by sectarianism ever since.
Did Muhammad even exist?
Professor of Islamic theology questioned the very existence of Muhammad
German academic Muhammad Sven Kalisch subjected Islam to the same scrutiny that religious scholars bring to the study of Christianity and Judaism – and doubted the very existence of the prophet!
Kalisch was not the first nor the only scholar to question Muhammad's existence (Professor Karl-Heinz Ohlig is another). Kalisch is no longer a Muslim.
Full of Gods
churches of Yemen. and the princes of Hira and Gassan, were instructed
in a purer creed by the Jacobite and Nestorian bishops." – Edward
300 years the Levant had been the heartland of Christianity. But
7th century the Christian Church was split into many rival factions – to
which Islam offered a refreshing simplicity.
From Edessa the 'Nestorian' (aka
the 'East Syrian Church' after the Synod of Beth
Papat, 484) successfully evangelised in the east, seducing Persia's
Lakhmid Arab mercenaries and establishing itself far into central
Asia and China.
The monophysite 'Jacobites,' much
keener on the Blessed Virgin than the Nestorians, spread north
to Armenia and south into Egypt (influencing the 'Copts').
They brought both the Ghassanid Arab mercenaries of Byzantium and
the 'Judeo-Christian' tribes of Axum into the monophysite fold.
The 'Chalcedonians,' known
variously as Maronite (after 5th century monk Maron), 'Monothelite' ('one
will in Christ' – a last minute attempt of Byzantine compromise)
and 'Melkitesite,' were an Orthodox 'royalist' minority.
like Edessa and Emesa were home to numerous exotic cults – Bardaisans,
Arians, Messalians, Manicheans, Gnostics, Carpocratians, etc.,
a veritable cooking pot of 'faith'.
The kingdom of
Abyssinia – Axum – had
a presence on the Arabian coast from the 3rd century.
In the 4th century, allied
to Rome and newly converted to Christianity, their fervour inspired
the conquest of the whole of the Himyarite
kingdom of southern Arabia. A great church 'al-Qulais' was built in San'a. The Ethiopians
campaigned as far north as central Arabia in 547.
by a Judaising Arab king, Dhu Nuwas of Himyar (518-525) – he
offered the inhabitants the choice between Judaism and death – the
Ethiopians re-invaded in 570 under Abraha. It was the year
of Muhammad's birth. The Ethiopians failed to take Mecca, even
with elephants, and shortly after
were driven out of the Yemen and replaced by Persians.
Ironically, it was
to safety in Ethiopia that the earliest Muslims fled when life
in Mecca looked threatening. Maybe the Axumites thought they
World Full of Gods – 7th century Arabia
and 'Haneefs': A family affair?
7th century Christian and other monotheistic ascetics
populated the deserts of Egypt, Syria and Arabia.
Muhammad appears to have been in touch with some
of them. His biographer Ibn Hisham ('Life of the
Prophet') mentions four: Warraqa bin Nawfal, Abdullâh
bin Jahsh, Uthmân bin al-Huarith and
Zaid bin Amro.
records that when Zaid was expelled from Mecca he
went to live on Mount Hira, the same mountain to
which the Prophet himself regularly retired to meditate.
Abdullâh was Muhammad's nephew; while Warraqa
and Uthmân were sons of two aunts of his wife
Res. of Christian hermits
the story of the Hebrew patriarchs the Arabs were pleased
to discover the fathers of their nation." – Edward
page of the Koran makes reference to either an episode of Hebrew
history, Jewish legends, rabbinical law, or an endorsement that
Islam is the faith of Abraham and Moses.
Jews arrived in Arabia
at least as early as the 6th century BC, lured by prospects along
the caravan routes. Ezekiel (27.19,22) catalogues trade between
Yemen and the city of Tyre.
Over the centuries
they were joined by others, fugitives from Roman-Jewish wars
and Christian purges.
The Jews of the Levant
welcomed and assisted the Persian invasion of 611-617 and when
the Byzantines returned in 629 the Jews were again expelled from
In Mecca there
were 3 Jewish clans: Beni Al Nadheer and Beni Qaynuqah expelled
625; and the Beni Quraidha, brutally dealt with at Khayber in
occupation Zoroastrian priests first fled to the deserts of Arabia.
Sassanid Persians established a presence on the Arabian shore of
4th century AD. Among their Arab allies were the powerful Lakhmids
of northern Arabia.
The official religion
was Zoroastrianism but many exotic cults thrived, among them the
Sabians (aka Mandaeans), a Gnostic sect which flourished in southern
were at first called 'Sabians' by the Meccans. The Koran mentions
the Sabians several times (22:17; 2:59; 5:73) and also the official
priests, the Magians (22:17)
Khusro II (590-628)
made the mistake of subjugating the Lakhmids in 602. They broke
free in 611 and readily joined the Muslim cause.
From the very earliest
times the Himyar Kingdom of the Yemen received influences from
India, along with the spices.
Indian traders, both
Hindu and Buddhist, settled in some of the major sea and river
ports of the Arabian Peninsula, at the mouth of the Gulf of Aden
on the island of Socotra and at Ubla, near modern-day Basrah at
the head of the Persian Gulf.
a 10th century history of Islam written in Baghdad by al-Tabari
speaks of another group of Indians present in Arabia, the Ahmaras
or 'Red-Clad People' from Sindh, probably saffron-robed Buddhist
Ahmed Ali (Trans.) Al-Quran (Princeton University Press,
W. Cook & R. Herzman, The Medieval World View (OUP, 1983)
John Gribbin, Science a History (Penguin, 2003)
William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain (Flamingo, 1998)
N. H. H. Sitwell, Outside the Empire-The World the Romans Knew (Paladin,
Edward Gibbon, Decline & Fall, Chapters 50-52 The Coming of Islam,
M. Brett, W. Forman, The Moors, Islam in the West (Orbis, 1980)
Justin Wintle, History of Islam (Rough Guides, 2003)
J. Bloom, S. Blair, Islam - Empire of Faith (BBC Books, 2001)
J. J. Norwich, Byzantium, The Early Centuries (Viking, 1988)
C. McEvedy, The Penguin Atlas of Medieval History (Penguin, 1987)
Robert Marshall, Storm from the East (BBC Books, 1993)
Some fifty articles are now available as a book.
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Copyright © 2004
by Kenneth Humphreys.
Copying is freely permitted, provided credit is given to the author and no
material herein is sold for profit.