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Monday
May 29th

The World Before Muhammad

Before we can evaluate something, we have to first understand it.  Much of what we read in the media or see on television about Islam is either very selective in its presentation or simply wrong.   The primary goal of these articles is help you understand some of Islam’s basic tenets and their development.  Along the way we will also look at some of the significant difference between Islam and Christianity, and the implications of those differences.   My objective is not to tell you what to think, but instead to provide you with information and sources you can use to make up your own mind.  I am simply going to present the facts, and places where you can find more information if you want it.  Where possible the information in these articles will come directly from original sources.  These are the best places to use if you truly want to learn about something.

Islam is usually presented solely as a religion, but is it that simple?  Yes, it is a religion, but we will see that it is also much more.  Islam is not only a religion, but also both politics and governance.  In addition, it is law.  The military aspects of society are also included within its tenets, as are civics and culture.  In short, all within society is Islam.  Everything from when and how you worship to the way one should get dressed is all prescribed for you within Islam.  These differences often make it difficult for Muslims to understand Jews/Christians and vice versa as our frames of reference are often not only entirely different but contradictory.

In this article, we’ll start with some history leading up to the time of Muhammad’s birth.  But before we start that discussion, there is something very important that you need to hear and understand.  The subject of these articles is Islam, and not Muslims.  Muslims are people, and we all share the same nature that God has given to each one of us.  Yes, you will find bad Muslims and good Muslims, just like you will find bad Christians and good Christians.  We have each been given the gift of free will to make our own choices, and it is our choices – and the way those choices are implemented – that define who we are.  When we talk about Islam we must remember that we are talking about its tenets and not people.  As we are called to do, we will present the truth and present it in love.

The Time Leading Up to Muhammad’s Birth

Muhammad was born about 570, over five hundred years after Christ’s crucifixion.  Some significant events that occurred in between these times include:

  • It had been almost 250 years since Constantine’s conversion, making Christianity the Roman Empire’s official religion.  Christianity now has an imperial role as well as a religious one.
  • The Roman Empire has also split into East and West.  There is a schism too, within Christianity between East and West, although the rift has temporarily been healed after the fifth ecumenical council in 553.  There is a Pope in Rome and a Bishop in Constantinople.
  • It has been about 140 years since the death of Augustine in Hippo, as the invading Vandal fleet lay off-shore.
  • The monastic movement is well underway, a development that will be critical to later history.
  • It has been almost 150 years since Attila and the Huns sacked Rome.
  • Few people speak Greek in the West any longer, and many documents are being translated into Latin.
  • The Roman and Persian Empires have been fighting each other for over five hundred years, with most of the conflict occurring within the area we know as the Middle East.

A Map of the World

If one were to look at a map of the known world at the beginning of the sixth century, it could be divided into four quadrants.  In the northwest quadrant were the remains of the Roman Empire, along with the Lombard, Frankish, Visigoth, and Saxon kingdoms in Europe and around the Mediterranean Sea.  Alboin is King of Italy at the birth of Muhammad, and Justin II is the Emperor in the East.  This quadrant is largely Christian.

In the northeast quadrant is the Persian Empire which stretches from modern Syria through Iraq and Iran toward modern India.  Chosroes I is King of Persia.  The Silk Road connecting China and India with Europe runs through Persia.  The teachings of Zoroaster are prevalent among the ruling and military classes within Persia, but its society was very accepting of other religions.  Persia also had significant populations of Nestorian Christians, Jews, Monophysite Christians (Jacobites), and Gnostics.  Many wars have been fought between Persia and Byzantine. 

Persia conquered the Holy Land in 614 under Chosroes II, including Jerusalem, and removed the ‘True Cross’ to Ctesiphon during Muhammad’s life.  Heraclius (Byzantine) reconquered Jerusalem in 628 and took back lands in Egypt, Syria, and Armenia.  Both sides employed Arab tribes to defend their frontiers from the other.  The Ghassinids were paid by the Byzantines, and were largely Monophysite Christian.  The Lakhmids were employed by the Persians and were primarily Nestorian Christian.  These two tribes were natural enemies of one another and viewed the other as being heretics.

To the southwest is the Kingdom of Abbysinia that corresponds to the areas of modern Ethiopia, Eritrea, and portions of the Sudan.  At this time it also held parts of modern Yemen and southern Saudi Arabia.  The Yemen contained important seaports on the route between India and Europe, and possessed its own architecture, culture, and legal system.  Abbysinia is ruled by the Negus, and is primarily Monophysite Christian.

The last quadrant in the southeast is often labeled the ‘Empty Quadrant’ on maps from this time and consists of the Arabian Peninsula.  It is very unlike the other parts of the known world described above.  There is no central source of authority in the Arabian Peninsula.  Instead the source of authority in this part of the world is tribal.  We’ll talk more about the people of this peninsula a little later.  In general the people of the Arabian Peninsula feel looked down upon by the rest of the world at this time.  It does not possess the wealth of Byzantine, the power of Persia, or the commerce and architecture of Yemen.  Rome, Persia, and Abbysinia had each in turn attempted to conquer the Arabian Peninsula and each in turn had failed.

While the lands in the other three quadrants were largely monotheistic, this quadrant was mostly pagan.  However, there were some Christian and Jewish tribes, and these lived together with the pagan ones at this time.  The pagan tribes built shrines to worship their gods.  Each shrine was controlled by a devout family.  Some of these sites became significant enough to be established as a haram.  A haram was a sacred place where overt conflict was forbidden.  It was a sanctuary.  These places served as a neutral ground for negotiations between feuding tribes, and a site for conducting trade fairs.  This worked because the tribes believed that violating the sanctuary would bring about divine punishment. 

The family in charge of a haram acquired substantial political power.  The head of the family in charge of a haram was called a mansib and often served as a mediator in tribal disputes.  They could also deny tribes access to a haram.  Even more powerful were the Kahins.  These were Shamans.  They often presented their sacred formulas as poetry, and poetry was a major art form in Arabia at this time.

Muhammad was a member of the Quraysh tribe, and his family was in charge of the haram of Mecca.  This haram (the Kaaba) was perhaps the most significant sacred site in all of Arabia.  It is said that the Kaaba contained about 360 idols; these included all of the gods of all of the tribes in Arabia.  One of Muhammad’s uncles was the mansib of this haram.  There was an annual trade fair in Mecca that was attended by all parts of Arabia each year.  Poetry contests were often held and the highest honor was to have a poem inscribed and placed within the Kaaba.

Most people on the Arabian Peninsula lived in a narrow strip of land no wider than 200 miles along the Red Sea called the Hijaz.  Mecca was not located along any major trade routes.  The trade routes through the Hijaz connected Syria and Egypt in the north with Abbysinia in the south.  There was a large Jewish kingdom in southern Arabia in what is now Yemen. 

 Religion’s Influence

Islam added nothing new to religion from a theological perspective; instead it borrowed from all those it encountered.  What it did do that was new was to marry monotheism with the Bedouin culture.  We’ll close this article by briefly looking at a few tenets for each of the religions mentioned so far.  In the next article we’ll pick up this content by looking at some of the specific borrowings from each of these religions, and some relevant aspects of Bedouin culture.

The Roman Empire consisted of Roman Catholics in the west and Eastern Orthodox in the east.  No more will be said about these religions as their tenets are generally known.

As mentioned earlier, Persia was multi-religious and included each of the following groups.  Most of these groups also existed outside of Persia:

  • Zoroastrian (Mazdaism) – Zoroastrianism is monotheistic, but it does not believe in the God of Abraham.  Instead they believed in a deity called Ahura Mazda, who governs the universe through his holy spirit.  There is an evil counterpart (Ahriman), who will in the end be overcome.  Some parallels exist with Christian beliefs and include:  six periods of creation, descending from a single couple (Mashya and Mashyana), rebirth of the world, the coming of a Messiah, the existence of a perfect kingdom, the resurrection of the dead, and everlasting life.  Zoroaster was Ahura Mazda’s prophet.  Traditions exist that Zoroaster was a contemporary of Cyrus the Great, may have met and influenced Pythagoras, and that he was known to the Jews as Ezekiel (although this last is doubtful).

There was a significant following of Zoroastrianism among Persia’s aristocracy, military, and commoners.  Christians and Jews were predominant among the peasants and urban populations.  Zoroastrianism was referred to as Madjus in the Qur’an, and on a par with Christianity and Judaism as a People of the Book.

  • Nestorian – This sect of Christianity asserted Christ’s humanity through Mary’s being the Mother of Christ rather than the Mother of God.  Nestorius was a bishop in the Orthodox Church.  His views resulted in calling the Third Ecumenical Counsel at Ephesus.  Nestorius was deposed as a result of the Counsel.  The Christian sect was forbidden in Byzantine, but welcomed in Persia.  It was the largest non-Zoroastrian population in Persia.  It was widespread in Babylonia, Khuzistan (Iran), the eastern Arabian coast, Afghanistan, and China.
  • Judaism – Judaism was the second largest non-Zoroastrian group in Persia.  Jews lived primarily between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and were the largest population in this area.  There were also large populations in Syria and Iraq to the Zagros Mountains.  Large populations also resided outside of Persia in Palestine, Egypt, and along the North African coasts.
  • Monophysite (Jacobites) – This sect believed that Christ had only one nature – divine.  The Chalcedian view was that Christ had two natures: human and divine.  The Jacobites were considered to be heretics by the Byzantines, and were the third largest non-Zoroastrian group within Persia.  They had sizable communities in Mesopotamia from Armenia to Syria, and along the Tigris River (Assyria).  They also had sizable populations within Egypt and Abbysinia.  The seat of the Eastern Monophysite Primate was Tagrit, in Iraq, along the Tigris River.
  • Gnostics – Gnosticism was a pagan response to monotheism.  In general it expressed a dualistic mysticism claiming the need for a special/secret knowledge.  It found a refuge within Persia and also had a significant presence in both Syria and Egypt.  The Persian sects did not believe in Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad.  Instead John the Baptist was central to those sect’s beliefs.  Their focus was on the ‘Knowledge of Life’.  The Egyptian and Syrian sects combined paganism with Plato’s philosophy.  The works of these sects included the Secret Book of John and the Gospels of Thomas and Judas.

Egyptian gnostic thought grew from writings emanating in Alexandria.  References to gnosticism first appeared in the writings of Irenaeus in about 180 AD and Clement of Alexandria a short time later.  The basic line of gnostic thought included:  (1) creation was made by an inferior godling, (2) creation was corrupt, (3) it was this malicious godling who prevented man from attaining his true perfection, and (4) Jesus was a teacher who revealed secret knowledge that would free us from the godling’s constraints. 

  • Pagan – While there were some Jewish and Christian Arabs, by far most were pagan.  Many appear to have acknowledged a creator god called ‘Allah’, but he was not generally worshipped.  The primary pagan gods of the Arabs were:
    • Hubal – God of the moon.  Along with the sun goddess, they had three daughters.
      • Al-Lat – A solar divinity
      • Al-Huzza –Worship of the planet Venus
      • Manat – A goddess of fate, the Evening Star

Muhammad spoke against the three daughter goddesses, but stopped short of saying anything negative about Hubal.  Hubal’s idol in Mecca was located within the Kaaba, next to the Black Stone, and it is believed that the two were connected.

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Dan Wolf photo for bio150Author and speaker, Dan Wolf, is gifted at gathering facts about contemporary subjects and sharing information in a manner that is easy to read and understand. Dan will be posting both historical and current information about Islam and Sharia on the VCA website.



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