Arabia Before Islam: Physical features of Arabia
Between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf lies a continent, arid and well nigh waterless, save where an occasional flood lends to the scene the freshness and charm of an oasis. Most of it is an uninviting place, unfriendly too, from the physical point of view. For miles around there appears to be no end to barren hills, no end to the glittering, blazing desert; no respite from the fiery heat except for the few green places which abound in palm and water and provide rest to the wandering tribes of the Arabs. The streams are few and seldom reach the sea. Most of them come to existence only when swelled by occasional rains and disappear in the sandy plains.
The peninsula was divided by the ancient geographers into "Arabia Petraea", "Arabia Felix," and "Arabia Dersta". "Arabia Petraea" corresponded to the present Hijaz and eastern part of Najd; "Arabia Felix" to Yemen and Hadramaut, and "Arabia Deserta" comprised the rest of the country. In the north lies the hilly tract, once inhabited by the Edomites and Midianites of the Hebrew Testament. Then comes Hijaz proper which extends along the Red Sea between Syria in the north and Yemen in the south. In this part are situated the famous cities of Mecca, Medina and Jeddah and is traversed by hills extending from the isthmus of Suez to the Indian Ocean.
There were but a few points at which, in ancient times, Arabia touched the outer world. The northern region, stretching from Syria to Euphrates, was occupied, in the second century, by some of those tribes which had, according to native tradition, about that time immigrated from the south and of whom we frequently hear in the later annals of the Roman empire. To the west, in the Syrian desert with their capital at Palmyra, was the dynasty of the Ghassanides; and to the east on the banks of the Euphrates, the kingdom of Hira: the former, as a rule, adhered to the Roman, the latter to the Persian Empire. (1)
The ancient records of Arab history eloquently speak of the fact that it was but the farther outskirts of the peninsula which came into contact with the civilized world. "The rest of Arabia was absolutely unknown; and, excepting thorugh the medium of countrymen engaged in merchandise, or settled on the confines of Syria, the Arabs themselves had but little knowledge of anything beyond their own deserts." (2)
Within the bounds of the country, the city of Mecca occupied a prominent position. It was but a small town, nestling in a plain amid arid, volcanic rocks, some fifty miles away from the shores of the Red Sea, from which the ground rises gradually towards the great table land of inner Arabia. As a commercial centre and as a sanctuary of great holiness, the Ka'bah attracted innumerable people from all parts of Arabia every year.
The control of the Ka'bah had been the chief object of ambition for the Arab tribes on account of the great influence its directors exercised over the whole of Arabia. There had been, therefore, constant struggle to secure the eminent position of the custodianship of the "House of Allah".
As far as history reveals, we find that the Ishmaelites remained the guardians of the Ka'bah for a long time. Afterwards it passed on to the Jurhamites and then to the Amalekites. Later on, the Ishmaelites and the Jurhamites united their forces to expel the common foe, i.e., the Amalekites, from Mecca and having succeeded in doing so, the Jurhamites finally became the guardians of the Ka'bah.
Banu Bakr and Banu Khuza'ah envied this privilege of the guardianship of Ka'bah and united their forces and fought against the Jurhamites, dispossessing them of the charge of the Ka'bah and taking its control in their own hands. After this Qusayy conspired with Bani Kin'anah, defeated Banu Bakr and Banu Khuza'ah and established their own authority over Mecca and the Ka'bah.
Thus the control of the Ka'bah and Mecca was restored to the Qurayshites after the lapse of about four hundred years.
Next, the guardianship of the Ka'bah passed first to 'Abd al-Dar and then to his sons and grandsons. To cite Muir:
The house of 'Abd al-Dar originally possessed all the public offices; but in the struggle with Hashim they were stripped of several important dignities, their influence had departed, and they were now fallen into a subordinate and insignificant position. The offices retained by them were still, undoubtedly, valuable; but divided among separate members of the family, the benefit of combination was lost; and there was not steady and united effort to improve their advantages towards the acquisition of social influence and political power. The virutal lordship of Mecca, on the other hand, was now with the descendants of 'Abd Menaf. Among these, again, two parties had arisen-the families, namely, of his sons Hashim and 'Abd Shams. The grand offices of giving food and water to the pilgrims secured to the house of Hashim, a commanding and permanent influence under the able management of Muttalib, and now of 'Abd al-Muttalib who, like his father Hashim, was regarded as the chief of the Sheikhs of Mecca.(3)
Thus at the time of Muhammad's birth this honour was enjoyed by his family, and his grandfather was the venerable chief of the theocratic commonwealth which was constituted round the Ka'bah. According to P. De Lacy Johnstone:
Medina, according to Arab tradition, was originally settled by the Amalekites, but these gave way in very early time to Jewish invaders, driven from their own land (probably) by the national disasters wrought by Nebuchadnezzar and later conquerors. Prominent among them were the Nazir, Quraiza, and Qainuqaa tribes. About 300 A.D., the Aus and Khazraj tribes, of Azdite stock, struck back south from their kindred in Ghassan, and at first lived on good terms with Jews who had hospitably welcomed them. But when they grew in numbers and felt their power, they, about the end of the fifth century, rose against their Jewish partners, in the Governmetn, massacred the chiefs, seized the best of their lands, and reduced the tribes to subjection. The treachery and massacre was avenged by Abu Karib, a prince, who slew the leaders, and devastated the cultivated lands, but had then to retire. Thereafater followed twenty years of strife btween the rival clans; a truce for half a century, then renewed war, ending after a terrible battle at Buath in 616 A.D. (where the strength of Jews divided between the contending tribes, and desert allies joined in the fray) in triumph of the Khazraj, whose chief, Abdullah ibn Ubai, was about to be raised to the kingship of Medina, when the exile from Mecca changed the fortunes of the city.(4)
Before the recent gush of oil and the gold that it has brought, the Arabs were living a life of extreme poverty. Their soil was poor; and constant tilling enabled them to wring only a precarious subsistence. They earned their livelihood either by rearing camels, horses, cattle, and sheep, pitching their tents within certain limits, where water and pasturage were most abundant, or they were engaged in the transport of merchandise along the trading routes through the desert.
1. William Muir, The Life of Muhammad, (1912) p. lxxx.
2. Ibid., p.xciii.
3. William Muir, op. cit., p. ciii.
4. P. De Lacy Johnstone, Muhammad and His Power (New york 1901), pp. 35, 36.